Every once in a while I almost write “I don’t envy big bank CEOs,” and then I consider my own finances and the mood passes. But it does seem hard, no? The job is basically that you run around all day looking at horrible messes – even in good times, there are some horrible messes somewhere, and what is a CEO for if not to look at them and make decisive noises? – and then you get on earnings calls, or go on CNBC, or sign 10Ks under penalty of perjury, and say “everything is great.” I mean: you can say that some things aren’t great, if it’s really obvious that they’re not. If you lost money, GAAPwise, go ahead and say that; everyone already knows. But for the most part, you are in the business of inspiring enough confidence in people that they continue to fund you, and if you don’t persuade them that, on a forward-looking basis, things will be pretty good, then they won’t be.
Also, when you’re not in the business of convincing people to fund you, you’re in the business of convincing people to buy what you’re selling and sell what you’re buying, which further constrains you from saying “what we’re selling is dogshit.”1
Anyway I found a certain poignancy in Citi’s correspondence with the SEC over Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, which was released on Friday. Citi and Morgan Stanley had a joint venture in MSSB, and MS valued it at around $9bn, and Citi valued it at around $22bn, and at most one of them was right and, while the answer turned out to be “neither,” it was much closer to MS than C. Citi was quite wrong, and since this was eventually resolved by a willing seller (Citi) selling to a willing buyer (MS) at a valuation of $13.5bn, Citi had to admit its wrongness in the form of a $4.7 billion write-down, and the stock did this: Read more »