Saturday, November 22, 2008

Citigroup May End Up With U.S. Government Rescue

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By Christine Harper and Bradley Keoun

The U.S. government may step in to rescue Citigroup Inc. after a crisis in confidence erased half the bank’s stock-market value in three days, according to investors and analysts.

Citigroup’s $2 trillion of assets dwarfs companies such as American International Group Inc. that got support from the U.S. government this year. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke may favor a rescue to avoid the chaotic aftermath of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc.’s bankruptcy in September.

“Citi is in the category of ‘too big to fail,’” said Michael Holland, chairman and founder of Holland & Co. in New York, which oversees $4 billion. “There is a commitment from this administration and the next to do what it takes to save Citi.”

One option is for the Federal Reserve and U.S. Treasury to create a special vehicle to purchase bad assets from Citi. The Fed has already erected several such funds, such as the Commercial Paper Funding Facility, to provide liquidity to the financial system. Typically, the Treasury would provide some first-loss equity or insurance fee, such as $50 billion provided to the CPFF, to protect the central bank and give the fiscal authority a stake.

The arrangement allows the Fed to leverage the money provided by the Treasury with loans, enabling the purchase of assets worth a multiple of the money. Funding the purchases with loans makes them less onerous to the U.S. budget.

Working Relationship

“That is the working relationship they have settled into with the Fed providing $1 trillion of the funding and the Treasury providing the equity tranche,” said Lou Crandall, chief economist at Wrightson ICAP LLC in Jersey City, New Jersey.

Citigroup management and some board members discussed “several options” for the company in a series of phone conversations with Paulson and New York Federal Reserve Bank President Timothy Geithner yesterday, the New York Times reported today, citing unidentified people involved in the talks.

Among those options were the possible replacement of Chief Executive Officer Vikram Pandit, a public endorsement of Citigroup by the government or a new financial lifeline, the Times said. No decisions had been taken as of late yesterday, it said.

‘Regulatory Intervention’

While Citigroup executives say the company has adequate capital and liquidity to ride out the crisis, its tumbling share price may shake the confidence of creditors, clients and rating companies. A similar scenario played out at Lehman, when Chief Executive Officer Richard Fuld declared the firm was “on the right track” five days before the firm went bankrupt.

“The market may be implying some sort of regulatory intervention,” Jason Goldberg, a former Lehman analyst who now works at Barclays Capital in New York, wrote in a note to clients yesterday. “In situations where the government has stepped in, the equity holders have not fared well.”

Pandit told employees yesterday that he doesn’t plan to break up the company, aiming to reassure workers as the stock resumed its skid. Citigroup shares dropped 94 cents, or 20 percent, to $3.77 in New York trading, giving the company a market value of about $21 billion. The stock pared its loss after the close of official trading, fetching $4.07 as of 4:35 p.m.

Pandit, Crittenden

Pandit and Chief Financial Officer Gary Crittenden, speaking on a worldwide conference call yesterday, also said they don’t expect to sell the Smith Barney brokerage unit, according to two people who listened to the call and declined to be identified because it wasn’t open to the public.

The call came as Citigroup’s board, led by Chairman Win Bischoff and independent director Richard Parsons, prepared to meet yesterday at the bank’s headquarters in New York, said a person familiar with the company’s plans who declined to be identified because the deliberations are private. Bischoff, interviewed at a conference in Portugal yesterday, declined to comment on any potential changes to the board.

“Providing stability” and “securing the future” are the themes of a new print advertisement that Citigroup plans to start running tomorrow in major markets in the U.S. and overseas. “Now, more than ever, you can feel confident that Citi never sleeps,” the ad reads.

No. 5 By Value

Once the biggest U.S. bank, with a market value of $274 billion at the end of 2006, Citigroup has now slipped to No. 5 behind Minneapolis-based U.S. Bancorp. A plan by 51-year-old Pandit this week to cut costs by shedding 52,000 jobs and an endorsement by billionaire Saudi investor Prince Alwaleed bin Talal didn’t assuage shareholders’ concern that bad loans and securities writedowns may extend a yearlong run of net losses totaling $20 billion.

“To be consistent with the last few government interventions, I don’t think Citigroup’s going to be allowed to fail,” said William Fitzpatrick, an analyst at Optique Capital Management Inc. in Milwaukee, which oversees about $1 billion and doesn’t own Citigroup shares. “This company’s too intertwined with the rest of the financial system to allow any further deterioration.”

Citigroup spokesman Michael Hanretta declined to comment. On the call yesterday with employees, Pandit said the company’s capital and liquidity are strong.

Including a $25 billion capital injection from the U.S. Treasury under the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program, the company has at least $50 billion of capital above the amount required by regulators to qualify as “well capitalized.” Capital is the cushion banks must keep to absorb losses and protect depositors.

‘Special Case’

Deutsche Bank AG analyst Mike Mayo wrote in a report yesterday that the bank’s $25 billion of reserves, when combined with other resources, “should be enough to cover estimated cumulative losses of $50 billion on loans.’” Mayo rates the stock “hold” and has a $9 price target.

“With Citi being as big as they are, the government will make a special case and step in and find another reason to dispose of more TARP funds,” said Matt McCormick, a portfolio manager and banking analyst at Bahl & Gaynor Investment Counsel in Cincinnati, which manages about $2.9 billion and doesn’t own Citigroup stock or debt.

Pandit was appointed last December to succeed Charles O. “Chuck” Prince, who was ousted as mortgage-bond writedowns saddled the bank with a record fourth-quarter loss of almost $10 billion. Prince was the handpicked successor of former Chairman and CEO Sanford “Sandy” Weill, who built the company through a series of acquisitions over 17 years before stepping down in 2003.

Deposits Said Safe

Bischoff, 67, was Citigroup’s top executive in Europe until he was named chairman when Pandit became CEO.

Bank employees have been telling customers their deposits are safe, and so far corporate clients haven’t moved their money elsewhere, said three people familiar with the matter who declined to be identified because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly about the accounts.

Crittenden, 50, has told colleagues it would be unwise to make hasty decisions to dispose of good businesses to satisfy investor demands for a show of action, one person familiar with the matter said.

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