The Times’sdetailed 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,
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 »
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:
“on that front, if on few others, Citi can credibly claim to be leagues ahead of Goldman.”
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 »
Buried in a footnote1 a while back I ruminated on the fact that, in the deal where Morgan Stanley bought a chunk of its Morgan Stanley Smith Barney brokerage JV from Citigroup, Morgan Stanley got a sort-of-free option to buy the rest of Smith Barney, and how that option is (1) valuable and (2) sort of cheap funding. That was basically all wrong, sorry! The lesson is, never read footnotes.
Charlie Gasparino is reporting that “Morgan Stanley chief James Gorman is making a full-court press with regulators to expedite the purchase of the remaining piece of the Smith Barney brokerage firm from Citigroup, moving up the buyout date as much as two years ahead of schedule,” so I guess Gorman puts the time value of that option at zero or less. As for cheap funding, Goldman had a research note this week saying that they met with Morgan Stanley and heard the same story, and also that:
At the margin, full MSSB ownership should have a meaningful impact on ROE as: 1) MS is still paying Citigroup a portion of earnings from the JV despite holding capital to support the entire business, 2) synergies with the Institutional Securities business will grow (i.e. client flow routing), and 3) the funding profile and client product offering mix will improve.
I think the second two things say something like “Citi won’t appreciate us shoving all of our MSSB customers into high-margin Morgan Stanley products, so we have to get rid of them before doing that,” though you could read them otherwise. The first thing calls the cheap-funding argument into some doubt, though maybe not that much doubt; Morgan Stanley’s capital is by some metrics cheaper than Citi’s, while its (credit market) funding is more expensive, so maybe this is still a good deal.
Anyway here’s what Gasparino has to say about the delay: Read more »
Being in certain rooms at certain times seems to be a good predictor of selling a book. Bin Laden’s bedroom on the night of his death is an obvious one, and various days in the Oval Office have or may soon have their chroniclers, though the world still awaits the unabridged memoirs of the guy who cleaned out Jeff Gundlach’s office at TCW. But the Treasury Department conference room where regulators imposed TARP on eight big banks seems to have been especially fecund; by my count Hank Paulson has already published his account, somebody in the room seems to have contributed to this account, and now Sheila Bair has written a book that includes hers, which was excerpted in Fortune today.
This is weird because – well, one, because a bunch of guys (and Sheila Bair) in suits discussing the terms of a preferred stock purchase in a conference room is not necessarily the first place you’d look for thrilling literature, but also, two, because the accounts are all pretty similar. Here’s Bair’s take on the bankers’ reaction to the TARP terms:
I watched Vikram Pandit scribbling numbers on the back of an envelope. “This is cheap capital,” he announced. I wondered what kind of calculations he needed to make to figure that out. Treasury was asking for only a 5% dividend. For Citi, of course, that was cheap; no private investor was likely to invest in Pandit’s bank. Kovacevich complained, rightfully, that his bank didn’t need $25 billion in capital. I was astonished when Hank shot back that his regulator might have something to say about whether Wells’ capital was adequate if he didn’t take the money. Dimon, always the grownup in the room, said that he didn’t need the money but understood it was important for system stability. Blankfein and Mack echoed his sentiments.
Coincidentally, Dimon is always the grownup in these accounts, too; what is new here is really Bair’s take as the head of the FDIC:1Read more »
Citi settled a CDO case for $590 million today, and if you are following along at home you’ll note that that is more than 2x as much as it settled its last CDO case for. There are a number of reasons for that but a big one is: in this case, Citi is in trouble for buying the CDOs, whereas in the last one it was in trouble for selling them. You can’t win, of course, but you can minimize your losses, and the method is clear: next time you find yourself with billions of dollars of assets that you’ve got marked at par but that you’re pretty sure will quickly decay into a pool of oozing crap, you should sell them quickly and deceptively. You’ll get sued less.
Also you won’t lose billions of dollars on the actual CDOs, which is arguably better.
I kid I kid this is different and Citi will probably be whacked repeatedly and in creative ways by shareholders over the fraudulent selling of the CDOs – that $285mm it’s paying to the SEC is really just a down payment – so there really is no way to win (except to accurately mark your assets and disclose your exposure clearly and accurately but who would do that?). Like: CDO investors will sue over the fact that Citi sold them crappy CDOs. Citi shareholders will sue over the fact that Citi was going around selling crappy CDOs without disclosing in its 10Q “we are in the business of selling crappy CDOs.” The advanced move will be when people sue because Citi didn’t tell them that other people were going to sue it, which sounds very silly until you remember that that exact thing is happening to BofA right now. Read more »
So remember when Citi did that thing that was all the rage in 2007 where they constructed a synthetic CDO referencing mortgage-backed securities in order to facilitate their own prop bet against those MBS, but then maybe inadequately disclosed to investors that they were in fact naked short those MBS? And then they got sued by the SEC for fraud, and settled that case for $285mm, or tried to anyway*? Well the SEC also sued one Brian Stoker, the Citi VP who structured that deal, because it’s important for the SEC to pursue powerful individuals responsible for financial crisis wrongdoing and who could be more powerful than the vice president of Citigroup? And unlike Citi, Brian Stoker chose to roll the dice, and today he won big but with an asterisk:
A jury on Tuesday cleared a former Citigroup executive of wrongdoing connected to the bank’s sale of risky mortgage-related investments at the peak of the housing boom, dealing a blow to the government’s effort to hold Wall Street executives accountable for their conduct during the financial crisis.
In addition to handing up its verdict, the federal jury also issued an unusual statement addressed to the Securities and Exchange Commission, the government agency that brought the civil case.
“This verdict should not deter the S.E.C. from investigating the financial industry and current regulations and modify existing regulations as necessary,” said the statement, which was read aloud in the courtroom by Judge Jed S. Rakoff, who presided over the trial.
Thanks jury! Bringing lawsuits about mortgage CDO marketing practices has been the major focus of the SEC’s response to the financial crisis,** and this was the first time that approach was tested in court, and the SEC’s lawyers spent building the case only to see a jury shoot them down in two days, and they have no courtroom victory or precedent to show for their work, but they won the one thing that is truly important in this vale of tears: an encouraging note from a group of anonymous strangers. Read more »
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