Stress and the Citi

By Charles R. Morris
April 7, 2014

Markets are still absorbing the Federal Reserve’s surprising smack-down of Citigroup. Under its chief executive officer, Michael Corbat, Citi had greatly strengthened its capital base — indeed, it had one of the best capital ratios of all the big banks — and had proposed modest dividend increases and stock buybacks.  Instead, City was the only big American bank that failed its review.

The Fed announcement, perhaps harking back to the Alan Greenspan tradition, was gnomic, to say the least. The Citi bombshell was buried in a few lines in both the press release and the much longer official statement.

While acknowledging Citi’s stronger capital position, the Fed stated that the rejection was based on “qualitative” weaknesses, including the bank’s “[in]ability to develop scenarios … that adequately reflect and stress its full range of business activities and exposures.” The bank will eventually be handed a detailed bill of particulars, perhaps in a week or so.

Corbat, a former Harvard football all-American, is a Citi lifer, with hands-on experience at most of the company’s hot spots. He was elevated specifically in 2012 to rebuild its balance sheet and strengthen internal controls.  Both he and his board seem to have been badly wrong-footed by the Fed turndown — Corbat had planned to dial into the Fed phone call from South Korea, but had to rush home to deal with the crisis.

The stress test failure came on top of a cascade of adverse events.

In late February, Citi had announced that its Mexican subsidiary, known as Banamex — the jewel of its international network — was out $400 million because of a garden-variety fraud operation. One Banamex client, a local oil servicing company, had regularly borrowed against its contracts with Pemex, the Mexican state oil company.  Banamex discovered, by accident it appears, that Pemex had previously suspended this client, but the client had continued to borrow against forged contract documents. Investigations are underway, and reports are that at least one Banamex employee was complicit in the fraud, possibly in collusion with some U.S.-based employees.

Soon after, Citi announced that it had been served with subpoenas for a potential criminal prosecution for money laundering and other violations at Banamex. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and the Securities and Exchange Commission sent related subpoenas. Federal authorities have long been unhappy with Banamex’s money-laundering controls. Whether the loan fraud is connected to money laundering is not known, and prosecutors may be seizing on the incident as a stark example of sloppy controls. But it’s easy to construct scenarios in which large short-term oil-related loans could be used to create seemingly legitimate conduits to process drug money in and out of Mexico. Since banking is fundamentally about risk management, the drumbeat of official complaints looks like a vote of no-confidence in the present executive team.

Still, compared to, say, JPMorgan Chase’s “London Whale” $6 billion-plus trading debacle, the Banamex problem looks like small potatoes. The “Whale” disaster, however, was caused by a very small unit of the bank, almost all of whom were quickly fired. Obvious trading-rule changes and oversight protocols were put in place, so at least the same sort of folly shouldn’t be repeated. JPMorgan’s CEO, Jamie Dimon, had to wear sackcloth and ashes for the better part of a year after the trades were exposed, and the bank took a big capital hit. But the capital loss was quickly earned back, and JPMorgan apparently sailed through the Fed’s capital-assessment process.

Though both Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase call themselves “global” banks, their business models are quite different. JPMorgan’s overseas activities are skewed to investment banking products, like stock flotations, big syndicated loans and bond underwritings, normally for big-ticket customers with high visibility to risk managers.

Citi, however, is attempting to run traditional full-service retail and local business banking operations on a worldwide basis. These operations have traditionally been considered Citi’s greatest strength. About half its consumer banking business originates internationally, and the bank has often been in the forefront of capturing profitable local consumer and small-company banking business in rapidly growing emerging market countries.

The Citi Mexican operation is its biggest and most successful foreign branch. But Citi also has an enviable presence in Brazil and in emerging Asian countries, including Korea, India, and Singapore. The catch is that far-flung branch networks of global money-center banks are natural processing points for illegal transfers of all kinds – proceeds of illegal drug and arms-peddling, tax evasion, or to evade currency controls or international sanction protocols.

Many bank managements clearly looked the other way as their networks happily managed floods of illegal cash. Wachovia (now part of Wells Fargo) processed hundreds of billions of drug money over the years, apparently managing never to ask potentially embarrassing internal questions. Big Swiss banks more or less openly made global tax evasion one of their core products. HSBC has been in constant hot water over money laundering.

Intense pressure by U.S. and European regulators has been driving all such operations further and further underground. Unsheathing the weapon of criminal prosecution of an institution, rather than just its employees, can jeopardize the target’s banking license, a potential death sentence. While that surely focuses the minds of New York executives, Banamex branch employees have more reason to fear and respect the power of the drug cartels.

Consider another recent scandal at JPMorgan that involved the hiring of family members of senior Chinese officials allegedly to win banking business. Once the scandal broke, it was relatively easy to identify cases and do something about it.

Banamex, however, is one of the largest financial operations in Latin America, with more than 40,000 employees and 1,700 branches throughout Mexico. Sure, there are a host of technologies that can be used to attack the problem. But the bad guys are also very smart and rich and continually move the bar higher. Worse, Banamex was acquired by Citi only in 2002, and apparently has resisted central office oversight.

It’s likely that Citi’s new management has made progress on cleaning up the U.S. side of its franchise — as demonstrated by its improved financial ratios. The harder question will be whether the bank can get genuine control over its unwieldy global network.

The Fed, at least, seems unconvinced. But note the “seems” in that sentence. Investors and managers will have to wait until we are furnished the details behind its action.


PHOTO (TOP): Citibank’s logo is pictured in downtown Los Angeles, California, April 14, 2011. REUTERS/Fred Prouse

PHOTO (INSERT 1): A Banamex advertisement is seen in Mexico City, February 28, 2014. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

PHOTO (INSERT 2): A view of a branch of Citibank along Khalid Bin Al-Waleed Road in Dubai, January 4, 2012. REUTERS/Nikhil Monteiro



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