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Sunday, November 11, 2007

Citi - penny wise, pound foolish

Citi (C) has spent the last five years pushing risk prevention and regulatory compliance deep into the corporate culture, right down to the lowest levels. Under the leadership of Chuck Prince, the lawyer picked to head one of the world's largest financial institutions, no process detail has been too small for Citi's internal auditors to obsess over.

It is therefore quite ironic to see Citi undone by the flagrant lack of risk management at the highest levels in their fixed income and investment bank segments. SIVs seem like an easy way to make money? Citi had to be the biggest player. Sub-prime mortgages kicking out high interest rates? Grab as many as you can. CDO's look like a good place to park some money? More is better.

Evaluate the risk in all of this? Why bother? The pressure is on to expand profits; after all, this is the "year of no excuses." And no one gets fat bonuses by being timid, right?

So with so much of the debt on Citi's books going from "mark-to-model" to "mark to who knows what?" the risk clouds that started to gather on Citi's horizon are sure to continue to swirl around the company for months to come. Add to that the weakening of the US economy and the attendant raising of loan loss reserves to cover bad credit card and consumer debt and Citi is clearly in for more pain.

To me this seems like a classic case of misplaced focus as Citi chose to sweat the small stuff while letting the big stuff get out of hand. Citi has been penny wise and pound foolish.

Disclosure: author owns shares of C in a retirement account

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