Never mind the Rubin news; that was all but a given. And the Bischoff news is not that much of a big deal either: the chap is the classic safe pair of hands who will be competent enough at managing Citigroup that there isn't an unhealthy sense of urgency about finding a new CEO. (Merrill Lynch, by contrast, sans any CEO at all, is in much more of a rush.) No: the really big news this morning is Citi's new losses. The WSJ reports that
Citigroup also said it will write off between $8 billion and $11 billion to reflect the declining value of subprime-mortgage-related securities since Sept. 30.
This is a major problem, and we can expect another lurching drop in Citi shares today. The new write-offs are just what Citi does not need, given its already-weak capital position. The last time that Citi announced massive write-offs, the stock rose, in the hope and expectation that all the bad news was now in the past. This time, the bank won't get off so easily.
It's not hard to see where the write-offs are coming from: Citi, it turns out, is warehousing $11.7 billion in subprime-backed securities, just waiting to be able to sell them. And that's on top of $43 billion in "super-senior" subprime-backed notes which it kept on purpose. What all of these illiquid securities are actually worth is a question which simply can't be answered with any degree of accuracy; what's certain is that a rash of recent ratings-agency downgrades has forced any model with credit-rating inputs to spit out much lower valuations.
Meanwhile, the official Citi memo quotes Bob Rubin and Win Bischoff as saying this:
Both of us will work closely with our Board and the talented operating and executive leadership of Citi to maintain the momentum of our business during this interim period.
Um. Citi's momentum, right now, is downwards, and rapid. I really don't think they want to maintain it; rather, they want to reverse it.
That said, it's not all bad at Citi. The bank has much greater global diversification than any other US bank, which gives it a natural hedge against a weakening dollar and US economy. Go to Poland or Mexico or Japan and Citi is a feared, not wounded, giant. And its sheer size is awe-inspiring: there aren't many companies on the planet which could take $10 billion of write-downs and still potentially make a profit in the fourth quarter.
Rubin and Bischoff do say in their memo that they "expect to get back to our targeted capital ratios by the end of 2Q08, including paying the current dividend", which is an ambitious target, I think, depending on what those "targeted capital ratios" might be. If Citi can nurse itself back into a healthy state by the middle of next year, even in the face of a slowdown in US economic growth, then there might be cause for optimism. For the time being, however, the financial markets will be right to treat Citi with great caution. There's really no reason that things shouldn't get worse before they get worse.