What will it take to get Citigroup
On Monday, the nation's largest banking institution perhaps took such a step, announcing that it would acquire 100% ownership of England's Egg Banking plc (Egg), the largest online bank in the world and a major player in British online banking. Egg currently is owned by Prudential PLC, which will receive about 575 million British pounds for it, or approximately $1.127 billion in cash. That amount will be subject to adjustments at closing.
The Egg purchase is nearly the first positive news to surface at the major financial institution in some time. Indeed, just last week, the organization was beset by the confirmation that its chief financial officer of two years, Sallie Krawcheck, was being removed from that post to replace Todd Thomson, who himself had been sacked by Citigroup CEO Charles Prince as head of its wealth-management unit. Thomson, who, like Prince, had flourished under Weill, had recently been judged by Prince to be guilty of overly lavish spending on both his unit and his own trappings. His extravagance included committing to a $5 million sponsorship of a new television program for the Sundance Channel and the commission of a working fireplace for his office, which some at Citigroup had come to call the "Todd Mahal."
According to a Wall Street Journal article that appeared late last week, Thomson also had incurred Prince's wrath for his close ties with CNBC anchor Maria Bartiromo, who had been expected to partner with actor Robert Redford as a host of the Sundance program. On one occasion, according to the Journal, Thomson reportedly arranged for Ms. Bartiromo to speak to Citigroup private banking clients in Hong Kong and Shanghai, and then flew her back to the U.S. on the bank's corporate jet. The Journal article notes, however, that Ms. Bartiromo "asked permission from CNBC (to fly on the Citicorp jet). She received it. And payment was arranged."
But it appears that Thomson's reported indiscretions are only a part of Prince's difficulties as he attempts to garner for Citigroup the sort of performance being recorded at commercial banking rivals Bank of America
Citigroup's inadequacies appear to fall into a number of categories, including the failure to use its own funds in the private equity and merchant banking spheres -- as, for instance, Goldman has done masterfully. It also receives low marks for its sliding status among credit-card issuers, along with its failure to significantly expand its retail operations a la Bank of America. And under Prince, the bank has been saddled with an income statement operating expense line that has grown appreciably faster than the institution's revenues.
A lion's share of the bank's failure to utilize its capital in the private equity arena is -- rightly or wrongly -- being attributed to Krawchek, who is charged with an inability to lead Citigroup meaningfully into this ever-more-lucrative area. But it seems to me that this charge falls neatly into an unfortunate area that I shall label 'convenient scapegoatism.' After all, major movements into significant new ventures are really the province of, at least, the chief executive officer -- and perhaps the board of directors -- at institutions as complex as Citigroup. It seems to me that adorning Krawchek with the mantel of blame here represents an inappropriate exercise in simplicity.
The same, I suppose, can be said of retail banking, where Citigroup's branch representation is less than 20% of Bank of America's. There exists a certain irony there, since my vote for the true founder of modern retail banking goes to none other than John Reed, who once served as co-CEO of Citigroup with Weill.
But perhaps Egg can benefit the retail area by serving as something of a prototype for Citigroup's heightened movement into online banking. The newly-announced acquisition will contribute more than three million customers, along with an array of products and services that include credit cards, online payment and account aggregation services, personal loans, savings accounts, mortgages, insurance, and investments.
As for cost controls, Prince has recently installed Robert Druskin, his and Weill's longtime deputy, as Citigroup's chief operating offer. Apparently Druskin's overriding responsibility will be directed toward trimming significant costs and expenses. Druskin once served as chief financial offer of Shearson/American Express, one of the noteworthy constructs in Weill's fabled career. However, the effects of Druskin's handiwork will likely take a while to be noticed.
An approach for Fools
But where does all this leave you Foolish investors who are intent on delving further into Citigroup in particular, and perhaps into the era of modern banking in general? Let me make a suggestion: head with all deliberate speed to your nearest bookstore, and purchase a copy of Monica Langley's Tearing Down the Walls, a superbly rendered biography of Sandy Weill that also details his remarkable career. Coincidentally, Ms. Langley also is one of a trio of authors of the aforementioned Wall Street Journal article on Citigroup's woes.
In the book, you'll of course meet Sandy Weill, who was responsible for many, if not most, of the major changes in the investment and financial services communities during the past 40 years, and was also the primary builder of the current Citigroup. You'll also encounter Prince as a young corporate lawyer at Commercial Credit Company, which Weill acquired in the mid-1980s, and Druskin, who served as Weill's underling in a variety of capacities. You'll meet John Reed and Peter Cohen -- the latter was Weill's top lieutenant at Shearson/American Express. Perhaps most importantly, you'll develop a sense of the career and capabilities of Jamie Dimon, chairman, president, and CEO of JPMorgan Chase.
But reading Walls is far more than an exercise in literary appreciation, as well-crafted as the work is. Rather, I believe that having followed the march of Sandy Weill, from his early days as a somewhat shy New Yorker, to the later years of his career -- he surrendered Citigroup's top post to Prince in 2003 -- I have something of an understanding of the financial institution's current culture. As such, I believe -- perhaps correctly, perhaps not -- that Sandy Weill was too strong a countenance to be replaced effectively by one of his own charges. Once Citigroup is led by a CEO who is not from the Sandy Weill camp, the institution may be better served..
For further Foolishness:
- Citigroup Faces Its Critics
- Bank of New York's Growing Pains
- Muddled Mellon
- Mercantile Bank, Yield Curve: Both Flat
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