Citi

You can question some of the life choices that Tom Hayes, a/k/a Trader A, UBS’s Libor-manipulating-est Libor manipulator, has made, but this seems to me inarguable:

Citigroup executives wooed him in June 2009 at a swanky bar in Tokyo. As they showered him with praise, say people who were there, Mr. Hayes rarely spoke, instead letting his girlfriend, a lawyer, answer questions.

Shady traders: date lawyers! And let them do all the talking for you.

That detail is from this amazing Wall Street Journal article about Hayes. When we last discussed Hayes and his totally open and casual requests to people he’d just met to manipulate Libor for him, I asked “is this: (1) all of these people did not fully realize that they weren’t supposed to be doing what they were doing, (2) UBS’s culture was one of complete lawlessness and fuck-around-ery, or (3) both of those things are true and reinforce each other?,” and per the Journal the answer is fascinatingly (3).

I’ve occasionally said that Hayes made a career of Libor manipulating but that’s not entirely right. He started at RBS and, per the Journal‘s account,1 spent his time there mainly being smart and dressing “like a college student — with washed out jeans, a polo shirt and sometimes a threadbare sweater” rather than IMing people to ask them to fix Libor. (That, at RBS, seems to have come later.) Then he moved to UBS: Read more »

Back in October when Mike Corbat was dragged from bed in the middle of the night to take over the top job at Citigroup after Vikram Pandit’s ouster, he did a hastily assembled damage-control conference call while still wearing his footie pajamas. On this call CLSA analyst Mike Mayo surprised Corbat by asking him a softball interview question, namely: tell me how you want your tenure as CEO to be measured in five years. Corbat’s response – and here I’m quoting from memory – was “Wait, I’m the CEO? Crap. Let me get back to you on that.”

Corbat may have forgotten that promise, but Mayo did not, and he asked the question again yesterday – on Corbat’s first earnings call as Citi CEO – and got in reply maybe the single best sentence a bank CEO has ever said:1

Mike Mayo – CLSA
And then for Mike, I asked this question when you first got the CEO job. If in five years from now you were to look back at your performance, what would you want to see to show that you were successful?

Mike Corbat – CEO
I think probably going back to your first line of questioning, we’ve got to get to a point where we stop destroying our shareholders’ capital. I would say that would certainly be at the top of the list, that we run a smart and efficient business that’s good at its allocation of its resources around its customer and client segments, that it’s continued to have the ability to lead in a company those clients around the world, that it served the social purpose. There’s several things in there.

This seems a little unfair! Read more »

My simple model of How To Be A Bank goes something like (1) amass assets that are numerous and volatile enough to make your management rich and happy and (2) give as much money back to shareholders as you can, consistent with (1). If that were your model and you were building your capital plan what feelings would you feel about this:

The Federal Reserve on Friday kicked off the next round of its annual “stress test” for big banks, releasing instructions on how the process will work.

Included is a new opportunity for banks to alter their proposals to pay dividends or buyback shares before the Fed decides to approve or reject their overall capital plans. … Under the new instructions, banks will have “one opportunity to make a downward adjustment to their planned capital distributions from their initial submissions” before the final decision to accept or reject a bank’s capital plan is made, the Fed said.

I propose a strategy that goes like:

  • take your best guess at how much capital you’ll be allowed to distribute, call it $X;
  • submit a plan to distribute $2X;
  • negotiate.

This appears to be a reaction to the sad fate of Citigroup in the last stress test. Read more »

The Times’s detailed story today on Citi’s deVikrafication is a fun read and adds a lot of information about Mike O’Neill’s coup and its aftermath, but I submit to you that if you found any of it surprising you need to pay more, or probably much less, attention to the conventions of corporate infighting. I pay a medium amount of attention, and the day the news came out I conjectured:

  • the board was planning to fire Pandit for a while but made the final decision after the earnings release,
  • then it fired him, though “fired” = more or less forced his resignation,
  • and this was part of a play for more power by O’Neill, the non-executive chairman,
  • and this would likely demoralize other executives because nice things are nicer than nasty ones and a cushy banking sinecure is nicer than Hobbesian war for P&L and efficiency.1

So that’s pretty much what the Times piece today reveals.2 I would pat myself on the back except, was anyone peddling an alternative explanation?3 Well, Citi, I guess, but come on. The notion that Vikram Pandit left Citi of his own initiative, the day after earnings, with no warning, is so absurd on its face that the fact that Citi and Pandit said that he didn’t doesn’t even qualify as a lie. The call on which O’Neill said “Vikram chose to submit his resignation and the board accepted it. Contrary to speculation, no strategic or regulatory or operating issue precipitated the resignation” so clearly meant “we fired the dude because we didn’t like him” that O’Neill shouted at Mike Mayo “Our statement is clear.”

It was! There is precisely one way to read it! That’s the kind of faint-praise statement you make if you fired someone because you didn’t like him but he wasn’t, like, cooking and eating security guards on company property. The statement where he actually chooses to resign – from an unlimited choice set as opposed to “resign or be fired” – looks very different. It comes on the earnings call, for one thing.

You can manufacture outrage about this in various ways. Henry Blodget and Fox Business think that Citi’s characterization of the ouster was fraudulent and/or is being investigated by the SEC; you can add salt to taste, but Blodget has some points here: Read more »

  • 24 Oct 2012 at 7:33 PM

Good Corporate Governance Apparently Does Some Good

We talked a while back about how “corporate governance” is a thing that exists more or less orthogonal to the thing that is “running your corporation as though you were a group of competent humans,” as evidenced by the fact that Citi’s mangled and perhaps legally problematic semi-firing of Vikram Pandit has been celebrated as a paragon of good governance. I don’t really know what “corporate governance” is, if not that, but much of its semantic space is covered by:

  • do your directors and CEO like each other? – [ ] Yes [ ] No
  • do you have strong takeover defenses? – [ ] Yes [ ] No

Two “No” answers = good governance; two “Yes” answers = sketchy.1

You might if you wanted to attempt to quantify those things – which is more important, and how if at all does the good governance that they reflect translate into things like shareholders making money? I enjoyed this Lucian Bebchuk DealBook post on a paper he wrote about golden parachutes in part because it gets at that a bit. Golden parachutes are a weird takeover-y topic: CEO employment contracts that provide for big payouts upon acquisition look formally like takeover defenses, insofar as they cost an acquirer money, but they’re actually sort of an anti-takeover-defense. They encourage takeovers since they’re a sign to acquirers that the CEO is not going to make things difficult if he gets a bid.

Anyway Bebchuk and his coauthors look at some data and find: Read more »

There’s a thing called “corporate governance” which you might think means like “the practice of running a corporation in a good way instead of a bad way” but you would be wrong. You can tell because the consensus is that Citi has displayed good corporate governance by making a chaotic demoralizing mess of firing Vikram Pandit in disgrace and/or regretfully accepting his voluntary resignation and/or other. Here’s Felix Salmon:

The CEO’s job is to run the bank, to answer to the board, and to get fired if he doesn’t perform. Which is what seems to have happened with Pandit.

Meanwhile, further downtown, the exact opposite is happening. Where Citi’s powerful board acted decisively after yet another set of weak results, Goldman’s powerless board is simply sitting back and watching their bank report a much more solid set of earnings

[W]hile investors care about earnings first and foremost, they also want to know that they’ll ultimately receive those earnings, rather than just seeing them disappear into the pockets of management, or be wasted on silly acquisitions. Governance matters. And on that front, if on few others, Citi can credibly claim to be leagues ahead of Goldman.

I say unto you that one or the other of these statements can be true, but not both:

  • “Governance matters.”
  • “on that front, if on few others, Citi can credibly claim to be leagues ahead of Goldman.”

Read more »

  • 15 Oct 2012 at 2:10 PM
  • Banks

Citi Has An Excellent 88% Decrease In Profit

I don’t have much insight into Citi’s earnings but I do enjoy the reporting of them. When a car or Facebook company reports earnings you basically ask questions like “how many cars or Facebooks did it sell?” and “how much money did it make on each one?” and those questions are kind of answerable and their answers give you a sense of how you should feel in your heart about the company. When a bank – like, a bank bank – reports earnings you can ask “how many mortgages did it sell?” and “how much money did it make on each one?” and those answers will be useful to you too, though there will be murky liquidity and valuation overhangs that will reduce their usefulness.

If you asked those questions of Citi, you might or might not get answers that might or might not be useful, but you’d be hard pressed to translate them into the headlines on Citi’s earnings. Big banks are not primarily engines for selling products and collecting a margin on them; they are bundles of accounting decisions, and this is never more apparent than at earnings time. This is pretty far removed from economic activity in the world:

Citigroup Inc.’s third-quarter profit fell 88% as the bank took charges tied to the value of its debt and the sale of a stake in its brokerage joint venture …

Others chose to emphasize economic activity in the world, at the cost of, y’know, GAAP: Read more »