Is Citi being forced to downsize by Obama?

It seems that not a day goes by when you don’t hear about some asset sale in Citigroup’s far-flung empire. Of all the major too-big-to-fail institutions, it is easily the most troubled: the poster child for everything that is wrong in finance in America.

But, when President Obama’s Pay Czar Kenneth Feinberg stepped in to limit pay at Citi and six other failed institutions living off of taxpayer largesse, I noticed something that made me wonder if there was more going on than meets the eye at Citi.  I am starting to think Citigroup is being forcibly dismantled by the Obama Administration as a condition of its bailout. Could there be some bailout strings of which we are not yet aware?

Why is WFC not getting pay caps?

The thing I noticed was Wells Fargo’s name missing from Kenneth Feinberg’s list. The seven companies now subject to pay caps are: Citigroup, GMAC, American International Group, General Motors, Chrysler Group and Chrysler Financial. But, last time I checked, Wells Fargo was suckling from the government breast via a $25 billion TARP payment. What gives?

The only logical conclusion one can make is that the Obama Administration has excluded Wells Fargo because it is a healthier institution than the pay-cap seven. I agree with that assessment despite a downbeat post on Wells earnings last week. The headwinds from Wachovia are significant. But the underlying earnings power of Wells Fargo’s franchise is of a different caliber than Citigroup’s. If you saw Citi’s earnings report, it was a disaster in banking, credit cards, trading, you name it.  Everywhere, Citigroup was getting killed.

So clearly, in looking at the too big to fail banks, something quite awful is still amiss at Citi (and at BofA to a degree) that is not at Wells Fargo or JPMorgan Chase (Goldman and Morgan Stanley are not really banks).

Remember those stress tests?

The question then is: what do you (the government) do about the problems at Citi, and, to a lesser degree, Bank of America? Well, we have answer number one: pay caps for executives. And don’t think Ken Lewis left Bank of America on his accord, despite his huge golden parachute. We could be seeing some of his cash clawed back. I suspect, however, there is more for these multi-bailout offenders.

Think back to the bogus stress tests from this past spring and summer. I was pointing the finger at Citi and BofA then, saying these stress tests were just a cover-up to buy these organizations more time. If they weren’t able to make the grade in that time, more draconian action would be warranted. My logic was as follows:

The leaks about who failed the stress tests are already starting.  Who got a big fat ‘F’?  Apparently, Citi and BofA for starters.  But is that any surprise?…

See, the stress are just a scheme to make us think the Federal government is actually doing something about the under-capitalized banking system in the U.S.. In reality, the Obama Administration is just buying more time in order to let us grow our way out of this problem…

Based on what Summers is saying, the stress tests are not designed to really test anything. They are designed to make it seem like the government has things well in hand so that we can grow our way out of this crisis with the help of government stimulus and debt.

Now, Summers and Geithner are not stupid. They do have a backup plan here. As I said in a recent post, not everyone is going to pass, and indeed, some banks have failed. What does that mean? It means these banks will be given some time to come up with the capital necessary to be adequately capitalized. If they cannot do so, the government will have to explore other options. This Plan B could include debt-for-equity swaps, nationalization, and FDIC seizure.

So, Geithner and Summers are hoping FDIC-subsidized funding, toxic asset removal, fiscal stimulus, quantitative easing and all the other measures now in place will kick in and provide a recovery – and solve the banking problem. However, if the problem is not solved, there is plan B – debt-for-equity swap, nationalization, or asset seizure.

In my view, we should be going to Plan B right from the start rather than going through this jury-rigged sham of a stress test.

Everyone beat the clock… except Cit and BofA

Now, time is up. All of the big banks raised boatloads of capital months ago. If Citi and BofA aren’t ready to hand back TARP funds yet… then they may never be. It is time for Plan B.

Remember back in May when all the big banks ‘passed’ the tests and immediately went to the capital markets for more capital after their share prices had doubled, tripled and quadrupled? That whole process was by design. We were supposed to have some ‘stress tests,’ followed by a clean bill of health, all in an effort to get those stock prices up so the banks could sell shares to shore up their capital base (the exact same thing has just happened in Sweden, by the way. See here and here).

Every bank CEO which could escape TARP, ran as fast as he could away from the government and the TARP facility. Only the truly capital-constrained remained under TARP, namely Wells, BofA and Citi. Wells is going to earn their way out of this one (which George Soros feels is exactly what should happen). Obviously, Citi and BofA are a different story. Hence the pay caps. But, I suspect there is a lot more.

Citi pullback and asset sales

Let’s concentrate on Citi because I have written a lot about their asset sales over the last year. They are the big bank which is truly deleveraging the most. They are selling everything they can to raise cash. Here’s a short list. Please tell me ones I have missed.

I am sure there is a lot I am missing here. Nevertheless, it is clear that the Citigroup of 2011 or 2012 will be a shadow of its former self. I suspect the same is true for Bank of America as well.

But, it strikes me as likely that these sales – at least the ones in 2009 – are being dictated by the Obama Administration. Citibank may not be selling purely because they need the capital and it makes strategic sense to do so. The coercive power of government may be standing shotgun over this.  All of the chatter between big banks and government is being done behind closed doors, so we can’t know what the true pre-conditions of the BofA or Citigroup bailouts were.

My operating assumption to date is that the government recklessly gave the banks all of the bailout money and backstops, asking next to nothing in return – all largely because they are captured by the financial services lobby. But, I would like to think there were at least some strings attached and that we are now beginning to see what those strings are.

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