Don't Fall for Citigroup's Fantasy

Markets exploded today because of a memo from Citigroup (NYSE: C  ) CEO Vikram Pandit, telling employees that -- surprise! -- the bank was actually on track to post its best quarter in over a year ... and a profit! Maybe things aren't as bad as we thought! We're saved! We're saved! Whoo-hoo!

Not so fast
You can't blame the market's reaction. Since Feb. 6, the Dow Jones has risen all of five times. Even relatively healthy banks like JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM  ) and Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC  ) are being treated like basket cases. Anything that can be slightly spun as good news is bound to be clinged to. Just give us any good news -- even if it's not, you know, true -- and the market will run with it.

This is no exception. Citigroup's announcement that "Hey, hey, we're actually profitable!" is twisted, tortured, and largely irrelevant to its ultimate fate.

The gist of Pandit's memo was that operating profit was going gangbusters -- as if operating profit has been the problem all along. The problem is not a bank's ability to generate current income, but its ability to absorb losses on legacy assets that are worth a fraction of their purchase price -- using absurd amounts of leverage to boot.

The memo disclosed numbers that point to an operating profit of about $8.3 billion this quarter, but Pandit didn't give any mention of what asset writedowns would be. "In January and February alone, our revenues excluding externally disclosed marks were $19 billion," he said. Great! Now... uh... about those "externally disclosed marks?" How are those workin' out for you?

I'm not worried that Citigroup can't generate operating profit: I'm worried it's not solvent. There's a big difference. Imagine a person drowning in debt but insisting they're wealthy because their paycheck exceeded their grocery bills. You get the idea.

Same game, different day
You can't blame bank CEOs for trying to instill confidence these days. Bank of America (NYSE: BAC  ) tried a similar approach a few weeks ago, telling investors that Countrywide and Merrill Lynch were the "stars" of 2009, and that Merrill Lynch will be "a thing of beauty," pointing to, you guessed it, operating profits.

It doesn't take a tremendous amount of thought to see that if a company has an operating profit of X and losses on existing assets of X times 100, things might not turn out so hot. Such is the case with Merrill Lynch, whose losses in 2007 and 2008 wiped out all profits earned over the preceding eleven years, and ultimately caused B of A to become the recipient of one of the largest federal bailouts ever. "A thing of beauty" indeed.

Posting the occasional operating profit will indeed provide a cushion for banks to absorb impending writedowns, but it's a clown show to think it'll be enough to plug the black hole of losses, especially in Citigroup's case.

For related Foolishness:

Fool contributor Morgan Housel doesn't own shares in any of the stocks mentioned in this article. JPMorgan Chase is a former Motley Fool Income Investor recommendation. The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.


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  • Report this Comment On March 10, 2009, at 4:34 PM, FinancialFellow wrote:

    I agree that Citi will probably be all the way back down in the dumps within a matter of days. (Not that it's current share price of $1.40 is that great anyway.) Well see what their 1Q earnings statement looks like.

    The biggest problem with all of this is that investors have too many places to put their money. Quality stocks are at fire sale prices (not saying Citi is one of them), money can be borrowed cheaply, and real estate is cheap. The latter two have directed my focus to real estate investing: http://financialfellow.com/2009/03/09/10-tips-to-profit-from...

  • Report this Comment On March 10, 2009, at 5:52 PM, Eck2666 wrote:

    From the customer's perspective:

    Last year was a tough year for most of us. To make it through, I hesitantly borrowed money at low interest rates on two of my credit cards, Citi and Capital 1. Citi was my first credit card, and I've been a loyal customer for many years, with an initial percentage rate of around 7%. So how did these two treat me? City RAISED my regular interest rate to 19.99%, while Capital 1 LOWERED my rate from 6.9% to 5.9%.

    My 3.5% HELOC came through just in time to pay-off the Citi balance before their legalized loan-shark interest rate had a chance to destroy me.

    Guess which one is NOW my primary card?

    I believe ethics should count too. As far as I'm concerned, Citi can dry up and blow away, and I won't shed a tear.

  • Report this Comment On March 10, 2009, at 5:59 PM, TigerPack1 wrote:

    EXACTLY THE KIND OF REACTION YOU WOULD EXPECT AT THE BIGGEST STOCK MARKET BOTTOM IN YOUR LIFETIME.

    I hope this article gets deleted by the Fool.com so your grandchildren don't get a chance to read it in 10 or 20 years!

    Thanks for pinpointing "the" bottom in bearish sentiment for us all. Several CNBC "reporters" were gladly adding their two cents today that bringing back the uptick rule would not help at all, as the market raced 7% higher on the inkling that this may take place.

    The market peaked within hours of the elimination of the uptick rule in early July 2007; trust me, it will "mark" the bottom when its resumption is at hand. Record amounts of short selling have decimated this stock market and the world economy, just like the 1929-33 experience.

    Let's just see where we stand in terms of pricing in a few months, after the uptick rule halves or more the supply of stock and investors buy, buy, buy with the improving economic outlook.

  • Report this Comment On March 10, 2009, at 6:05 PM, cydcyd wrote:

    Citi Bank is just trying to ...Say they are okay...for many reasons & it does not take a fool to figure it out.

  • Report this Comment On March 10, 2009, at 6:06 PM, cydcyd wrote:

    Citi Bank is doing this for many reasons.

    It does not take much to figure this out.

    I'm sure many see thru it & if they don't,

    well then they don't.

  • Report this Comment On March 10, 2009, at 6:29 PM, RANSOMsPOINT wrote:

    Well, in 6-9 months, most investors will wish they had bought into the market while it was at it's bottom! For one, I'm just riding it out until the economy is back on track!

  • Report this Comment On March 10, 2009, at 7:00 PM, SWeid100 wrote:

    Why are you all so convinced that Citi can't remain solvent?

    Vikram is not so stupid that he would publicly and completely distort the truth so much with regulators crawling all over him and knowing that the real truth will be exposed in such a short amount of time.

    Also, it seems like they've already written off anything risky down to nothing already.

  • Report this Comment On March 10, 2009, at 7:12 PM, illbfoolish wrote:

    Didn't we hear something similar from Bear Stearns shortly before it collapsed?

  • Report this Comment On March 10, 2009, at 7:13 PM, cooski wrote:

    Wells Fargo, JP Morgan healthy? Better get more reliable info...Citi and BAC are horribly overleveraged, so they happen to make these guys look ok. If you like gambling, go to Vegas.

  • Report this Comment On March 10, 2009, at 7:25 PM, pjd218 wrote:

    Just to get this straight....

    the millions that have bailed on Citi, BofA, MS, G Sachs and others all of the sudden "found religion" on this bit of good news and cannot dismiss it for the reasons stated above?

    I guess my glass is half full. Take the good news, spin it positive, and the bailout will cover the non-performing.

    Most of America, and likely not members here, need any positive sign they can get.

    Thanks for the spin!

  • Report this Comment On March 10, 2009, at 7:32 PM, skully201 wrote:

    C profits: please; this what we look for. C value has been beaten up for the mistakes. At the low price for C, to deliver a reasonable profit is a fine event. Let the "chickens little" run for cover on the outcome for C; this includes the Big Fools. Put another way, "oh my, I paid $1.99 for C and MF front office chickens little predict I will loose my money.

    My honey knows a hundred ways to cook a pinto bean. We will be ok with our C we think.

  • Report this Comment On March 10, 2009, at 7:33 PM, orofnap wrote:

    what exactly is leverage? wouldn't using leverage imply that they had something to use as leverage? if so, what is it that they are using as leverage? a hill of beans? probably not. the loans on houses bought before 2005 that have a value greater than the loans on them and are occupied by at least one of the 92% of the people still working in the country. probably. if the government was responsible for the banks overextending their efforts to put more people in homes, they extended the banks conditional leverage to fill the gap. talking about the united states like it is going up in flames is idiotic.

  • Report this Comment On March 10, 2009, at 8:20 PM, ROCKJCP wrote:

    C has government guarantees. It it going nowhere but up. Far slower than today but up long term. Assets valued at zero will be upgraded. C is a good buy for anyone with time.

  • Report this Comment On March 10, 2009, at 8:25 PM, litv wrote:

    Morgan,

    Respectfully, hasn't the U.S government been very insistent that this "Public/Private Partnership" will succeed.

    "I'm not worried that Citigroup can't generate operating profit: I'm worried it's not solvent."

    If I were a stock holder and could print money..

  • Report this Comment On March 10, 2009, at 8:28 PM, mjonesy1985 wrote:

    I don't really think anyone is expecting Citi to go higher within the next few days, weeks or even months. But why not buy at a dollar and then sell for $1.40. That's the way the markets are right now and will continue to be until some sort of confidence is restored.

  • Report this Comment On March 10, 2009, at 8:28 PM, LookThinkJump wrote:

    Amazon fooled a whole bunch of people with operating profit mumbo jumbo and eventually they turned the corner. Come on, if you were the CEO you'd be blowing smoke too. Every puff of smoke has got to worth an extra $10 billion in bail out funds. And as every boy and girl knows every $10 billion of bail out funds results in more operating profit. Isn't the world a grand place.

  • Report this Comment On March 10, 2009, at 8:57 PM, Rasbold wrote:

    Don't believe any of Citi's bull jive. Those plicks need to go down hard. So you made a few bucks off of them? Good, now get rid of it!

  • Report this Comment On March 10, 2009, at 8:57 PM, jbromet wrote:

    I'd like to ask all you Fools out there: What makes you think that Citigroup's recent history of financial practices qualifies her for renewed confidence on the part of customers? Citi has not stated that she had participated in greedy practices that undermined confidence in her. Citi wants us to forgive and forget, not confess and return to positive behavior. Perhaps Ciyti thinks of itself as the victim in all this. Well, take a number! There are plenty of those vying for that.

  • Report this Comment On March 10, 2009, at 9:27 PM, FatboyMan05 wrote:

    I call this rally on C the medimum puff of smoke that got caught in a storm just looking for anything positive....

  • Report this Comment On March 10, 2009, at 10:32 PM, nicko168 wrote:

    Well, can see that he's trying to get out of the $1 mark and that's a good move similar with BAC.

    But, the consequence is going to be affect wall street greatly when the truth is out..it will rock to bottom these few days.. that's what i say..

    How can CITI make profit when they've not return the taxpayers' monies and write-off the bad debt...

    Can see he's pathetic & eager to get out.....ANOTHER WIZARD???

    I won't buy until he can put up the financial report out to show everyone...

    My advice: DON'T GET FOOL....

  • Report this Comment On March 10, 2009, at 10:45 PM, DAFFDILL78 wrote:

    Citi has a lot of 'Toxic Debt' some of which is paying; it has a govt. guarantee of about 113 Billion to cover the non-paying debts, debts that Citi took on at the behest of the govt. Citi how has the govt. owning 35% of its common. Why do you knock Citi? Are you trying to run the price down so you can buy the other 65% for a song with the CEO singing the tune?

    wgfowler

  • Report this Comment On March 10, 2009, at 10:46 PM, karensboyfriend wrote:

    Bernanke swears the fed won't let the big's fail. Looks like the market for trader's.

    Citi, as well as JP morgan have trillions of level three assets. Morgan also inherited from Bear, One of the largest short positions on silver in the world, somewhere around 13% of the amount produced globally in a year.

    What did Buffet say about banks? Set you stops!

  • Report this Comment On March 10, 2009, at 11:53 PM, asaenzc wrote:

    YOU HAVE NO IDEA! THE CURRENT SHARE PRICE OF CITI IS WAY TOO CHEAP! AND THE US GOVERNMENT WONT LET ANY BIG BANK FAIL!

  • Report this Comment On March 11, 2009, at 1:20 AM, healthpicker wrote:

    You make an important point on the relevance of operating profit.

    The comment I would make is lewis stated recently that there is operating profit being made in BAC and the comment from Citi is saying the same thing.

    The thing to keep in mind on operating profit - it comes from daily operations - so lending is taking place, fees are coming in and this is good news for all of us. There will be many mortgages refinanced and this will NOT be done at an operting loss.

    The big question is how long is it going to take and how much will it cost to sort out the toxic waste still lying around balance sheets.

    The Government here and in the Europe have no appetite to take total direct ownership of these big institutions and wipe out the shareholders. They need these companies operational.

    For the taxpayer remember that bailout money comes at a cost to these companies. The taxpayer is getting paid a good return on this bailout money. BAC for sure will pay the interest and will pay back the capital as soon as it is prudent to do so.

    Be assured that these "too big too fail" companies all over the world will never be allowed to take the gambling risks that were inherant in worldwide derivatives trading mess.

    We will see.

  • Report this Comment On March 11, 2009, at 6:12 AM, 7footmoose wrote:

    i agree with healthpicker, would it make others feel better if Citi announced that "operating profit" was negative, the fact that it is positive means that Citi is producing income to absorb some if not all of the "bad debts" that it is likely to encounter in future quarters, this in my mind is both a good thing and an overall positive for the economy, when the major financial institutions in this country begin producing "operating profit" equal to or greater than current quarter "bad debt expenses" we will see the beginning of the end of the banking crisis

  • Report this Comment On March 11, 2009, at 7:58 AM, nicko168 wrote:

    Markets exploded today because of a memo from Citigroup (NYSE: C) CEO Vikram Pandit, telling employees that -- surprise! -- the bank was actually on track to post its best quarter in over a year ... and a profit!

    First point to note is that Pandit wrote the memo to internal staffs to declare profit but he didn't announce publicly. So it's not a criminal case if the information is false.

    Under this case, it's the investor who should blame oneself to jump into conclusion.ha..ha..

    I would say " it's a wait & see" on the save side.

    When dow is up over 300, I predict it'll fall flat down when everyone realised they're fool by CITI.

  • Report this Comment On March 11, 2009, at 8:11 AM, IIcx wrote:

    Interesting comments Morgan but the Citi news was the least of the reasons the markets bounced yesterday. It's just the reason the news happened to use to explain the situation.

    Positive news announcements have been very rare or overlooked by the media.

    Example: massive saving account increases will help to fuel bank lending.

    We're all pretty sick of hearing that the glass is always half empty when it's obvious that its more then half full.

  • Report this Comment On March 11, 2009, at 8:38 AM, IIcx wrote:

    The tone of this article and its prominent placement on the home page seems odd in the face of Motley Fool objectives.

    Was the article intended to be a warning to investors?

    Why is it hard to believe that banks and will become profitable in a hurry at these lending rates?

  • Report this Comment On March 11, 2009, at 8:47 AM, jesvlim wrote:

    You call Citi's bounce a fantasy when you yourself have no idea how much off-balance sheet asset/debt that it has. Please back up your claims or else you are the one living in fantasy trying to pull off an unsubstantiated spin.

  • Report this Comment On March 11, 2009, at 9:22 AM, jesse2159 wrote:

    Citi has $301 billion in government gurrantees on outright crap, borrowed billions more from the government and has tens of billions of toxic assets still on it's balance sheets that no one wants to buy, and yet, lo and behold, it's profitable? By what standard? Fool got it right.

  • Report this Comment On March 11, 2009, at 10:12 AM, hudsondusters wrote:

    Everybody knows Pandit is talking operating profit, not taking into account chargeoffs. But he also said it passed some serious internal stress test, higher than the gov'ts tests. Of course, that's just their word. But Buffett pointed out the day before that banks are making a killer operating profit in this environment. Citi was insolvent functionally twice before but folks didn't panic and it earned its way out. It will again, as the gov't makes it obvious it is back stopped. marking to market ignores the very real cash flows of some of these assets. The "market" does not always gets things right, as the Fool well knows. The market was wrong in 2007 at the top and it can be just as "wrong" now.

    In fact, some of thye particpants in the market have a very active interest in driving things down. Especially via highly leveraged cds.

    In any event. Think of it this way. Suppose I borrowed 500k on a house that is now worth $300 k. I have $100 k in other assets. I am insolvent. But if I have thye cash flow to make it through, I need not sell the house. Alot of people walk away or stop paying, but there's no absolute need to. I am paying my bills as they come due. No one in that situation can force me into involuntary bankruptcy.

    This problem is constant in a fractional reserve banking system. See It's A Wonderful Life.

  • Report this Comment On March 11, 2009, at 12:30 PM, wasmick wrote:

    Folks, Morgan has a job to do just like everybody else and he has a deadline to deliver a column whether he has anything of value to say or not.

    Stop knocking him for his OpEd piece. To object so strenuously to his opinion piece is to believe he presented some kind of persuasive case buttressed with facts. If that's your belief, you should re-read the article more carefully.

  • Report this Comment On March 11, 2009, at 12:56 PM, kerg01 wrote:

    Excellent article...I tried to explain the situation to my wife so I used a simple analogy....

    Emagine you run a convenience store worth 2 million including 1.5 m in inventory. To maintain your inventory you borrow money from the local bank (bondholders), with only 10% backed by collatoral from the store. (the non inventory assetts of the store are worth 150,000.

    We will say the beer inventory is 500,000. Day to day your convenience store makes a profit of 10,000 a month, so pretty good. However you open your store one day to find your beer inventory is spoiled for a writedown of 500,000. All other convenience stores have had their inventory spoil as well, so the insurance company (AIG) is only able to pay at pennies on the dollar and only due to the federal govt feeding them pennies......

    So its not a day to day profit problem its an inventory problem, and since you owe lenders more than your have assets you are bankrupt.....

  • Report this Comment On March 11, 2009, at 1:05 PM, dimestop wrote:

    the assets of most big financials that are based on real estate are near worthless according to an article I'll link too.

    example: Citibank is touting INCREASED EARNINGS (probably mostly due to loans based on Tarp from gov).

    problem: what about existing assets...what value are they declining...what's they're real mkt val.

    if they are going down faster than the increased earnings...big trouble for big financials...

    read my posts backward in order from most recent...make sure you look at the links in each post...

    http://seekingalpha.com/account/user_comments

    xtra: so you DON'T MISS THIS IMPORTANT LINK:

    WHICH SAYS BIG FINANCIAL REAL ESTATE ASSETS VIRTUALLY "WORTHLESS!"

    http://livinglies.wordpress.com/2009/02/13/president-obama-p...

    flashrob

  • Report this Comment On March 11, 2009, at 1:45 PM, lukematt wrote:

    "Come on, if you were the CEO you'd be blowing smoke too."

    Many commenters have expressed similar sentiments, and I agree, too.

    However, why doesn't a regulator react to this bullsh*t immediately, especially given that Citi is currently attached to the government's bailout teat?

  • Report this Comment On March 11, 2009, at 4:08 PM, hudsondusters wrote:

    Again, some of the assets don't have a market because vultures want the very lowest price and a quick return, but some of the assets can come back. House prices won't fall forever.

  • Report this Comment On March 13, 2009, at 5:30 PM, ArmyStockTrader wrote:

    As a former Citi employee of 3 years (1998-2001), I know how they treated thier employees and thier consumers. They couldn't care less about the employees or thier customers, their only concern is making money and paying thier CEO's fat bonuses while the worker in the back office gets the shaft multiple times a day, everyday.

    Citi has a knack for finding loopholes in the regulations to put the proverbial 'screws' to the consumer and finding ways to shake an extra penny out of them. I could write a 4000 word article on all of the things I know they have done that were 'legal' but not ethical. This little memo sounds like something they would pull, similar to the "2.99% Balance Transfer Offer" that comes with many ugly strings attached; such as a 5% fee (no max, so a $10,000 Balance Transfer costs $500, then they charge a $39 overlimit fee on your $10,000 credit limit, due to the $500 transaction fee, then they reprice the account to 29.99% because of 'risky behavior--mind you, all of this on the first bill).

    Thier other favorite trick was using the 2-cycle interest calculation method to compute interest (charging 60 days worth of interest every 30 days essentially makes 2.99% become 5.98%). These two tricks ARE legal as long as they are disclosed in the credit agreement, but very few consumers take the time to read the credit agreements. Handling those screaming consumers' phone calls that I was expected to 'dispose of' within 1 minute and 39 seconds each were more stressful than 3 deployments to Iraq in the past 6 years, IED's and sniper fire included.

    I know of many more shady schemes Citi does to its consumers, I wont even deliberate on that on this forum--but I would speculate that thier CEO is AT LEAST stretching the truth to improve thier public image with investors; thereby increasing CITI's share price. But, just like that first bill with your balance transfer, we will probably see the strings that come with those statements when the 1Q earnings statement comes out.

    Personally, I despise Citigroup and I wish the government would let them drown in thier own decietful marketing, advertising, and consumer servicing practices. I am livid that the tax dollars that I work and sacrifice so hard to earn are being loaned to such a shady and unethical organization. If Citi were to go under I would throw a block party to celebrate.

  • Report this Comment On March 13, 2009, at 10:17 PM, JetsNeedVick wrote:

    Two sides of the Citi arguement:

    I bought a bunch of Citi between $1 and $2 because they are making an operating profit (can't help it with current rates) and their losses will be absorbed by the government. They will go to $3 or $4 again shortly. Profit is my motive, plain and simple.

    Now regarding their ethics, if you invest on ethics, here's my story:

    In the mid '90's recession my banking consulting business went belly up and my lawyer talked me into bankruptcy. "Work had and in 10 years it will be forgotten, by law" he said. Included was maybe $300 on a Citi card.

    Fifteen years later, with a 770 average score and NO negative entries on my credit reports, I decide this is a good time to get a Citi Business card, just as a fallback. After all, they send my business and I at least 2 offers a month, and other banks approve me on the spot. You know the answer: "Sorry sir, even though your tax dollars kept us from bankruptcy, and we are really sorry we screwed up and promise we won't do it again, you didn't get a government bailout so we don't want to do business with you."

    I'll smile all the way to PNC as I trade them into the dirt.

  • Report this Comment On March 13, 2009, at 10:22 PM, JetsNeedVick wrote:

    Oh yeah, one more point: I responded to thier email with the above story and it got bounced back with "Sorry, we can't respond to your email as it is not secure." I copied Vicky Panda and it did not bounce back. Think he'll reply or take the story to heart and amend the decision?

    If you think so, I've got some bank stock I'd like to talk to you about.

  • Report this Comment On March 14, 2009, at 10:36 AM, nicko168 wrote:

    Well, I've warned readers earlier when CITI announce that it's making profit is a false show..

    After everyone jump into the wargon & off they go into their fantasy..

    Recent news from Bloomberg claimed that the CITI executives are making hell lot of monies in 9 days & that's 2.2 million each or more after the news was leaked out & everyone hop into it...

    Now, seems that GM,FORD,BAC,LVS,JP MORGAN,GE.... are coming out with the same tactics & guess what, everyone is drawn into the illusion that the companies are making profit now...

    Look at the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s concern about the security of his country’s investments in U.S. government debt, reiterating pledges to cut the budget deficit in half in four years.

    President Barack Obama is relying on China to sustain buying of Treasuries amid record amounts of U.S. debt sales to fund a $787 billion stimulus package and a deficit this year forecast to reach $1.5 trillion. Investors abroad own almost half of all U.S. debt outstanding, and China last year overtook Japan as the biggest foreign buyer.

    I would prefer to lay back on my couch & wait.....ha..ha...

  • Report this Comment On March 14, 2009, at 11:43 AM, nicko168 wrote:

    Based on last Friday market, there's no sellers for fianacial stocks...What a surprise???

    No..it's because others ain't confident in the US market...

    Next....in the G20 meeting & this is what happen:

    A deepening slump and the banking turmoil are forcing officials to form a more united approach. The run-up to the meeting was marred by discord as European governments rebuffed a U.S. call to spend more money and demanded more focus be paid to tightening market regulation.

    “We need urgent policy action,” Simon Johnson, a former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund and now a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, told Bloomberg Television. “The financial sector problems are far from over. We have a worsening real economy.”

    Seems that the European government is calling it a fantasy to "spend"

  • Report this Comment On March 15, 2009, at 9:55 AM, capitalismisdead wrote:

    citi is insolvent and so is boa...they are zombies wait and see...they both will be nationalized in 12 months

  • Report this Comment On June 02, 2009, at 10:29 AM, citicarddefault wrote:

    listen up, fools, 5 years ago everyone I knew had a citibank aadvantage business card, $50,000 limits, et al....95% are now defaulted....

    then after missing payment by one day, they raised our rates to 39.99%. we will not pay the one dime of this usurious and illegal scam. may they go under quick, they are evil at it's finest

  • Report this Comment On June 02, 2009, at 10:32 AM, citicarddefault wrote:

    as well, hopefully when we end up nationalizing them, the stockholders dividend rate should be 39.99%

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