Dear Pundits: Citi isn’t Proof of Financial Supermarket Viabilty

Let’s be honest, Citi has some serious problems it has to fix. I’ve touched on many of them on this blog. But Citi’s failure is hardly an indictment of the “one stop” business model. It stands to reason that Citi is the example of how one cannot merely staple business together, allocate capital according to best returns for shareholders, and hope that a finance company can be run like a portfolio (ala G.E.).

One need only look at two competitors (and I’m sure Jamie Dimon thinks about this right before he lulls himself to sleep)–JP Morgan Chase and Citi. JP Morgan Chase has had a recent history of successful integrations, merging of businesses, stable leadership, and a cohesive corporate culture. No one at JPM sits around wondering how they can squeeze out the “other guys.” If you’re a Chase person you’re not trying to get all the JP Morgan people fired. Citi, on the other hand, has had management change after management change–each one is followed by an exodus of top, experienced executives. Guess what happens when one cobbles together a management team of people who are holdovers, new guard, and new hires… Citi! Guess what happens when no one takes the time to integrate businesses that have redundant product lines and systems, but rather let them operate all on their own… Citi!

In fact, one could be forgiven for thinking that standalone institutions are the business model in peril. Merrill, Lehman, and Bear, all pillars in the stand-alone investment bank community have disappeared from the landscape. Goldman and Morgan Stanley, the two remaining firms that were stand-alone investment banks six months ago, now include consumer banking in their business lines–much closer to the business mix of Citibank plus Salomon Brothers. Indeed, I would argue Citi’s investment bank performed like the lower tier of standalone investment banks, and ther mere existence of the consumer bank and deposit base “added in” allowed it to survive.

My theory is further bolstered by what Citi hopes to become and why. CitiCorp (Citi Corp? Citicorp?) is essentially a bank, an investment bank, and a brokerage all put together… And it’s half the size of Citi today. If that doesn’t say, we got the execution wrong but the model correct then I don’t know what does.

Oh, and don’t use BofA as a counter example… It was doing just fine on its own before swallowing Stan O’Neil’s mess whole (although the Ken Lewis negotiating tactics didn’t help). Further, Wachovia and Washington Mutual are examples for the opposite side of the equation–banks hoping to make money through capital markets operations and doing it poorly. Think of their problems as having evolved from having singularly focused, very poorly run investment banks attached to them.

The basic point: We’ve seen two financial supermarkets emerge here in the U.S. Both are still alive, and one is still profitable (The WSJ news alert shouldn’t have been “J.P. Morgan Chase’s Net Income Falls 76%” it should have been “J.P. Morgan Chase’s Net Income is Positive!”). The other’s problems are widely acknowledged as being cultural and borne of historical shortsightedness. Declaring the business model dead now would be silly.

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