Citi: Breaking Up is Long Overdue (And Hard to Do Right)

Well, the Citi is burning… or breaking apart at least. Honestly, this has all been rehashed so much, I’ll not even bother citing where I have learned these basic facts and figures. First, though, I will say that Deal Journal‘s coverage has been great as has Alphaville‘s coverage. And, as usual, Felix is translating for us. Read all the coverage there (in between catching up on your reading).

The Facts

So, as is my usual M.O., let’s start with what we know.

  • Smith Barney is going into some odd and very complicated joint venture. In an epic win for branding, it will be called “Morgan Stanley Smith Barney.”
  • Citi’s private bank (focused on people with net worth of $10 million and up) and brokers who are housed within Citibank branches will not be part of the joint venture. Morgan Stanley’s franchise focusing on high net worth individuals, analogous to the Citi Private Bank, will indeed be part of the joint venture.
  • Citi is looking to slim down it’s operations, seemingly across all product lines. Businesses rumored to be “on the block” include risky consumer finance businesses (Primerica and CitiFinancial), private label credit card business (credit cards issued by Citi, but branded by another company, like a retailer), and proprietary trading.
  • Many structures are contemplated. Seemingly what will happen is another entity will have all those businesses transferred into it until each can be sold.

The Situation

Okay, seems clear. Now, what can we deduce from this?

First, the Morgan Stanley Smith Barney transaction will be an absolute and total nightmare. I predict the level of success will be somewhere between Merrill’s acquisition of Advest (disaster) and Bank of America’s acquisition of U.S. Trust (moderate success). Why do I believe this? Well, let’s look at what the joint venture creates: a massive, co-branded entity with business lines focused on high net worth individuals and, separately, more traditional clients of full-service brokerages. Also, this behemoth is responsible for selling both Citi and Morgan Stanley products! Morgan Stanley controls the entity and is left with no business lines that overlap with the venture. Citi retains brokers housed in their retail branches and it’s private bank, both direct competitors to the joint venture. Well, that hardly seems logical… To sell a business but still keep enough fragments of it to have to maintain the same infrastructure, support staff, and organizational complexity as if it wasn’t sold–things like stock trading, account processing, compliance, client account management, and relationship management software are all required no matter how many brokers you have.

Now, Citi further complicates it’s own dismantling with respect to the Smith Barney transaction because, well, it’s not east to answer the question, “Which advisers are part of Smith Barney?” For years Smith Barney has been hiring away brokers who focus on high net worth individuals but didn’t want to be part of the private bank–these teams had a structure and style all their own. These teams also use the private bank’s platform and infrastructure. Where do these brokers go? With the joint venture or to the private bank? They need access to products and services which will not be part of the joint venture (but which might be duplicated by Morgan Stanley, although I doubt it). I don’t know where these teams go, and I’d be 97% sure Citi doesn’t know (and Morgan Stanley is, most likely, not aware of the issue).

Just to summarize, we see that Citi has created an entity it intends to compete with and which diminishes their distribution capabilities and other value of their remaining businesses, while not diminishing any of their infrastructure needs.

Next up, we have the dismantling of the mothership–everything that isn’t Smith Barney within Citi. Let’s first note that the infrastructure argument from above applies here, it seems like no business line is going to be cut, merely focused. Although, there are probably still some sort of cost savings here because these franchises rumored to be spun off have always been marred with issues due to the lack of integration. For example, it’s been reported that CitiFinancial lives on it’s own systems and isn’t integrated in any way with other consumer businesses.

Mundane details aside, though, who is going to buy these businesses? In this market, when you cherry pick the worst businesses and try to sell them who is buying these businesses for anything but rock-bottom prices? Further, if you don’t sell the businesses A.S.A.P., then you’re still at risk for the losses. I’ll say that I don’t see the value in identifying to the world the businesses you are about to neglect–totally demoralizing the employees and hitting productivity and profitability hard–before you’re ready to actually dispose of those businesses. Further, why would anyone buy the businesses Citi had that were under-performing all these years? It’ll be interesting to watch how they position these “assets” for sale. Will they admit the problems and put those in front of potential buyers as immediate ways to increase value?

Two last points to be made, both about the investment bank.

  1. Citi is spinning off the assets guaranteed by the U.S. Government. What will that do to the financial status of the government’s investment?
  2. Citi is said to be shutting down all proprietary trading businesses. Anyone who has been watching knows that those businesses are either the few remaining revenue generators or have dismantled themselves long ago. And some, like Metalmark or the hedge fund that hadn’t launched or began operating yet (but was founded by Morgan Stanley alums), were clearly acquired at top dollar.

Further, this means Citi is going to drastically scale down it’s trading operations. When one is merely an order taker, and cannot use the firm’s capital, there is a very limited upside. You have turned a white collar professional into the best paid grunt ever. While some Citi traders clearly deserve this, it’s not clear that a complete strategy change won’t kill Citi’s sales and trading operation totally.

The Elephants in the Room

After all this, Citi still has some big issues that will challenge it’s ability to operate effectively going forward. Some of these are holdovers from my earlier issues with Citi

How is Citi going to deal with the politics, infighting, legacy technology issues, and fractured culture? These, I would argue, are the real sources of the tens of billions in writedowns. No effective risk management. No sense of responsibility. No trust in management. No ability to even see all the risks on the books.

Why won’t Citi need more capital or have to deal with further catastrophic losses? Especially with these assets being de-emphasized and starved of capital.
I have yet to hear a god answer, really, about why the steps beyond the Smith Barney transaction are even newsworthy. Until something is sold or shuttered, it’s all financial engineering and corporate legal maneuvering.

I guess we’ll see…

Advertisements
Explore posts in the same categories: Assets, Finance, Financial Institutions, Information, People, Platforms, Risk, Structure, Systems, Technology, Trading

Tags: , , , ,

You can comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.

3 Comments on “Citi: Breaking Up is Long Overdue (And Hard to Do Right)”

  1. Gomer Pyle Says:

    US Trust was not a moderate success. All the intellectual talent gone, period, end of story. All leaders of US Trust gone. Now the modus is selling bank loans, deposits, products, etc. The culture has been absolutely decimated by Hillbillies. If you go the UST building on 47th Street, it is a empty shell of people, all wanting to leave Bank of America.

  2. Rob Says:

    Some of your assumptions are not 100% accurate. The industry is not as simple as it may seem. Citi brokers do NOT compete with Smith Barney, never have, and never will. Citibrokers are ordertakers, like Schwab brokers, like E-Trade or any of the other thousands of “Casino” like chop shops where those inclined to believe they are smarter than the thousands of full time MBAs managing money these days can sit down and lose their money at various paces. A fool and his money were lucky enough to get together in the first place, right?

    But the market that both Morgan and Smith Barney serve is not full of DIY gamblevestors… it’s full of very large high net worth clients who got that way by realizing that investing is not a part time hobby that anyone can just sit down and do well. It’s full of actual revenue producing privately managed accounts, which are far better for both firm and client than mutual funds. And these two firms will absolutely dominate that space. Their nearest competitor won’t even have 1/2 the market share.

    Then what will happen? Well… you have Merrill in a shambles, thousands of bottom quintile brokers scrambling to set up a home based business or leaving the industry and you have the old AG Edwards, now Wachovia… oops… Wells Fargo. Which is essentially the old bank+ model that we just realized doesn’t work well. You have UBS which despite paying HUGE packages for talent in the last few years does not compete well in the US and really doesn’t like paying their people like the capitalist entreprenuers they are… wait till they try to bring the Euro comp model to the US, the exodus will be Biblical.

    And you have Morgan Stanley Smith Barney… and who else? NO ONE.

    They will have very little competition and the single most experienced team of professionals anywhere on the street. Citi is surely in trouble. And if the selling process doesn’t make sense, well there is a good reason. The government is effectively running the sale. But betting against Morgan Stanley Smith Barney would be short sighted to say the least. It’s the smarest thing Citi has done since… well since Sandy was calling the shots.


  3. Excellent insights folks. It would seem that the spun-off brokers will be better positioned without the burden of Citi’s oversight and miscued strategic direction. I have also blogged about this at: http://internationalbs.wordpress.com/2009/01/20/sticking-to-your-knitting-at-citi/


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: