Citigroup gets new rescue

The US government will boost its equity stake in Citigroup to as much as 36%, bolstering the bank’s capital base in the latest emergency effort to save the banking giant.

In its third attempt to prop up Citigroup in the past five months, the government will convert up to $25-billion in preferred shares to common stock. Existing shareholders could see their ownership of the bank diluted by 74%.

While the latest rescue does not inject more money into Citigroup, it gives the government more of a voting stake and far greater influence over the bank’s operations, short of outright nationalisation. The White House said a higher US stake will help achieve a ”better outcome” for the bank.

”The government is the new boss,” said Mike Holland, the founder of money manager Holland & Co in New York. ”Every major decision is something that is not going to come out of Park Avenue, but is going to come from Washington, DC”

New York-based Citigroup in October and November received $45-billion of taxpayer money, as well as a government backstop to cap losses on $300,8-billion of toxic assets. More than two-thirds of these assets related to mortgages and commercial real estate.

Shares of Citigroup closed down 39% on Friday, and touched their lowest level in more than 18 years. The market value of what was once the world’s most valuable bank has fallen to $8,2-billion, Reuters data show, from a peak above $270-billion roughly two years ago.

US Bancorp’s market value is more than three times greater than Citigroup’s, though the regional bank’s asset base is only one-seventh as large.

Moody’s Investors Service cut Citigroup debt one notch to ”A3,” its fourth-lowest investment grade, saying Citigroup is likely to shrink, ”which could diminish its relative importance to the US banking system over the long run”.

Standard & Poor’s affirmed its ”A” rating, a notch higher, but revised its outlook to ”negative”.

CEO still in charge
Friday’s agreement calls for Citigroup to offer to exchange common stock for up to $27,5-billion of its preferred shares at $3,25 per share. The government will match the exchange up to $25-billion, provided private investors do the same.

Citigroup will halt dividends on preferred and common stock, but maintain payouts on trust preferred securities.

The agreement could be a template for other lenders that have taken government money. It will boost Citigroup’s tangible common equity ratio, a measure of capital, to between 5,4% and 8,1% from the fourth quarter’s 3%.

On a conference call, chief executive Vikram Pandit said senior executives ”completely remain in charge” of day-to-day operations.

The bank will shake up its board and install a majority of new, independent directors. Five of the board’s 15 members are either not standing for reelection or will reach retirement age by the time of Citigroup’s annual meeting in April.

”Investors want to see heads roll because they’re so angry at the entire banking industry,” said Marshall Front, chairperson of Front Barnett Associates LLC in Chicago, which invests $500-million. ”But Citigroup management is as well qualified to deal with the problems the bank faces now as anyone, and would not have the learning curve that new people would face.”

Citigroup shares closed down 96 cents to $1,50 on the New York Stock Exchange, on trading volume of about 1,87-billion shares. Front said the drop was not steeper because ”the stock long ago discounted substantial dilution, which is now being formally recognised”.

Shares of other lenders also fell, including declines of 25,8% at Bank of America and 16% at Wells Fargo & Co.

The Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index fell 2,4% after the government said US gross domestic product fell much more in the fourth quarter than analysts had expected.

Separately, Citigroup said it has recorded more than $8,9-billion of charges to write down goodwill and its Nikko Asset Management unit in Japan. It said the charges boosted its fourth-quarter loss to $17,26-billion, and full-year loss to $27,68-billion.

CEO says no nationalisation
Citigroup and other large US banks will soon undergo ”stress tests” to assess their ability to cope with a severe recession, and whether they might need more capital.

Referring to the new rescue, Pandit said, ”This capital should take confidence issues off the table, even in a stressed environment.” Asked about nationalisation, he added, ”This announcement should put those concerns to rest.”

The Obama administration has said it prefers to keep banks in private hands, and Federal Reserve chairperson Ben Bernanke this week rejected 100% government control of lenders.

The United States already has a nearly 80% stake in insurer American International Group, while the British government owns 70% of Royal Bank of Scotland.

”There is so much going on in terms of trying to manage the continuing and unfolding drama around the credit crisis,” said Peter Kenny, managing director at Knight Equity Markets in Jersey City, New Jersey. At Citigroup, he said, the government ”didn’t want to have to take any more than it had to.”

No plans to seel Banamex
Pandit has split Citigroup into two: Citicorp, which has retail banking and other businesses that Citigroup wants to keep, and Citi Holdings, which includes troubled or underperforming assets it wants to sell or wind down.

A higher government stake could complicate Citigroup’s ability to operate in some of the more than 100 countries where it has businesses. Bank executives downplayed speculation that Citigroup might shed all or part of its ownership of Grupo Financiero Banamex, Mexico’s second-largest bank.

”We’re not open to the idea of offloading assets that we really want to keep,” Edward ”Ned” Kelly, head of global banking and Citi Alternative Investments, said in an interview. ”Banamex is a very important property to us, and we are intent on retaining it and maximizing its value.”

He also called the bank’s Handlowy business in Poland ”an extraordinarily important franchise to us.”

Citigroup said the preferred stock exchange could boost its common share count as high as 21-billion from 5,5-billion now. It said investors including Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, Singapore Investment Corp, Capital Research and Management and others had agreed to swap their preferred stock. – Reuters

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David Lawder
David Lawder works from Washington, DC. @Reuters global economy, trade, IMF correspondent, Missouri born, @MarquetteU Warrior. Tweets are my own, retweets not endorsements. David Lawder has over 673 followers on Twitter.

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