- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 19, 2008

NEW YORK (AP)

Citigroup’s 9,000 job cuts and $14 billion in write-downs suggest that even if the worst of the credit market volatility is over, the industry is now in a conservative, cost-cutting mode.

With banks expecting more loans to go sour, people can expect tight lending standards for many months — perhaps years — to come.

“Underwriting standards have to be high. That’s the way to dampen potential losses you might face,” said Chief Financial Officer Gary Crittenden. He said that historically, deterioration in consumer credit has taken eight to 10 quarters, or at least two years, for rates of delinquency and default to recover.

Citigroup Inc. is struggling with not only a troubling lending environment in the United States, but also a dented portfolio of investments. The bank’s write-downs, plus more than $3 billion in costs related to consumers’ credit problems, led it to report a first-quarter loss yesterday of $5.1 billion, or $1.02 a share.

The most recent quarterly shortfall at the nation’s biggest bank by assets was not as massive as the nearly $10 billion loss it suffered in the fourth quarter of last year. Since many investors had been bracing for even more dismal results, Citigroup shares closed up $1.08, or 4.5 percent, to $25.11in trading yesterday.

But it is hardly smooth sailing for the bank from this point on. Citigroup essentially lost in the first three months of the year what it earned in the same period in 2007 — $5 billion, or $1.01 per share. Analysts, on average, had expected the New York bank to lose 95 cents per share, according to Thomson Financial.

“We’re not happy with our financial results this quarter — although they’re not completely unexpected, given the assets we hold,” said Chief Executive Officer Vikram Pandit during a conference call.

Because Citigroup has lost so much money, it has announced 13,200 job cuts since the credit crisis began slamming the banking industry last summer. The bank announced 4,200 cuts in January, about 9,000 yesterday, and suggested more work force reductions are likely.

“We’re very, very focused on efficiency,” Mr. Pandit said during the analyst call.

To be sure, it appears that Citigroup, like most other large banks, has already been aggressive in writing down its assets to market value, and that the biggest write-downs may have been taken already. Write-downs in the first quarter were $4 billion less than the fourth quarter’s $18.1 billion.

Citigroup’s $14.1 billion in first-quarter write-downs include $7 billion related to subprime and alt-A mortgages; $3.1 billion related to leveraged loans; $1.5 billion related to bond insurers; $1.5 billion on auction-rate securities; and another $1 billion related to commercial real estate, a hedge fund and funds known as structured investment vehicles.

But with significant exposure to problematic mortgages and leveraged loans still on its books, Citigroup remains at risk for further write-downs. Fitch Ratings yesterday downgraded the bank’s credit rating, while Moody’s Investors Services and Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services took actions that indicated Citigroup might be downgraded in the future, if the assets on its books deteriorate.

“There’s always the prospect that you’ll have additional marks,” Mr. Crittenden said during the analyst call.

Meanwhile, echoing other banks that have reported financial results this week, Citigroup said it faces a deteriorating environment for consumer lending. Charge-off rates keep climbing for mortgages, credit cards, auto loans and other types of loans.

“The consumer is being pinched — it’s not just homes,” said Byron MacLeod, earnings quality analyst with Gradient Analytics.

To prepare for more consumer loan losses, the company added about $2 billion to its reserves.

“Everybody is swimming in the same pool here. Everybody has issues,” said Mr. MacLeod. But compared to other banks, Mr. MacLeod said, the rate at which Citigroup is having to write off loans is particularly high, relative to the amount of loans on its books that are in default or close to default. “That’s going to be a serious concern for the company going forward.”


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