Feds To Take 36% Stake in Citigroup

The U.S. government will exchange up to $25 billion in emergency bailout money it provided Citigroup Inc. for as much as a 36 percent equity stake in the struggling bank, greatly increasing the risks to taxpayers as voter unhappiness about the broader bailout program rises.

The deal announced Friday by the company and the Treasury Department represents the third rescue attempt for Citigroup in the past five months. It's contingent on private investors agreeing to a similar swap.

The administration decided to restructure the bailout package for Citigroup again in the hopes that converting $25 billion of preferred shares into common stock would give investors more confidence the bank has sufficient capital reserves to withstand mounting losses on its holdings of mortgages and other loans. While the conversion to common stock will dilute current shareholders' investments, a wider equity base could calm investors since there would be more reserves in place to guard against further losses as the economy sours.

Besides a stronger capital base, the company is getting a critical boost to its cash flow as it forgoes its 4 cent annual dividend on its common shares. That is giving Citi an additional $2.18 billion a year.

But the deal doesn't affect one of Citi's greatest problems, the billions of dollars in failed mortgage-backed securities that still sit on its books. As those investments have fallen in value, they have exacerbated Citi's losses.

The plan comes one day after the Obama administration laid the groundwork in its first budget request for greatly increasing the size of the $700 billion bailout program that Congress passed in October. Administration officials said no decisions had been made yet but suggested the size of the effort could be expanded by as much as another $750 billion.

The swap of $25 billion of preferred shares into common stock will expose the government to the same risks facing other holders of the bank's common stock. Shares of Citigroup and many other financial companies have plunged as the sector undergoes its worst crisis in seven decades.

But the administration is mindful about growing unhappiness among voters and lawmakers in the huge sums that have been provided to the nation's banks, money that so far seems to have done little to stabilize the situation.

In his first address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday, President Barack Obama stressed that the government effort was not aimed at bailing out bank executives who had made bad loans, but instead in getting credit flowing again to consumers and businesses.

"I know how unpopular it is to be seen as helping banks right now, especially when everyone is suffering in part from their bad decisions," Obama said. "I promise you — I get it."

The aim of the government's rescue effort is to keep the New York bank holding company alive and bolster its capital as it faces growing losses amid the intensifying global recession. Existing Citi shareholders would see their ownership stake shrink to as little as 26 percent.

Investors appeared disappointed in the deal and expected dilution of their stake, sending shares plummeting 91 cents, or 37 percent, to a new 52-week low of $1.55 in afternoon trading. Stocks tumbled early but pulled off their lows as the Dow Jones industrial average came within 34 points of breaching the 7,000 mark for the first time in more than 11 years.

Underscoring its precarious nature, the company also disclosed that it recorded a goodwill impairment charge of about $9.6 billion due to deterioration in the financial markets.

The Treasury Department said the transaction requires no new federal funds. But it left the door open for Citigroup to seek additional government funding or for the conversion to common shares of the remaining $20 billion in federal bailout money it received late last year. The government currently holds about an 8 percent stake in Citi.

For now, that $20 billion in government funding will be converted into a new class of preferred shares that will be senior to other bank debt and it will continue to pay a yearly 8 percent cash dividend. As part of the deal, the payout for all other preferred shares will be suspended.

Citi will offer to exchange up to $27.5 billion of its existing preferred stock held by private investors at a conversion price of $3.25 per share. That's a 32 percent premium over Thursday's closing price of $2.46.

The Government of Singapore Investment Corp., Saudi Arabian Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, Capital Research Global Investors and Capital World Investors are among the private investors that said they would participate in the exchange.

The conversion will help provide Citi the mix of capital to withstand further weakening in the economy. The stock-conversion option was laid out by the administration earlier this week as an option for providing relief to banks. It gives the government greater flexibility in dealing with ailing banks. It also gives the government voting shares, and therefore more say in a bank's operations.

But common shares absorb losses before preferred shares do, which means taxpayers would be on the hook if banks keep writing down billions of dollars' worth of rotten assets, such as dodgy mortgages, as many analysts expect they will.

On the other hand, common stock in banks is incredibly cheap, and taxpayers would reap gains if the banks come back to health and the stock price goes up.

One of the hardest hit banks by the ongoing credit crisis, Citi has also received guarantees from the government protecting it from the bulk of losses on $300 billion of risky investments. Citi has been especially hit hard by investments in the mortgage market, which began to collapse in 2007.

The deal comes as Citi is in the process of shedding assets and cutting staff as it looks to reduce costs and streamline operations ahead of splitting its traditional banking businesses from its riskier operations. Citi last month reached a deal to sell a majority stake in its Smith Barney brokerage unit to Morgan Stanley.

Citi also will reshape its board of directors, Richard Parsons, the bank's chairman, said in a statement Friday. The board, which currently has 15 members, will have a majority of new independent directors as soon as possible, he said.

Three board members in recent weeks have said they would not seek re-election as the company's annual shareholders meeting in April. Two others will reach the mandatory retirement age by the time of the meeting.

Roberto Hernandez Ramirez earlier this month said he would not stay on beyond his current term. Last month, Robert Rubin, a former Treasury secretary who was a longtime Citigroup board member, and Win Bischoff, most recently chairman at Citigroup, announced their retirements from the company.

The goodwill charge announced Friday was added to Citi's 2008 results along with a $374 million impairment charge tied to its Nikko Asset Management unit. The charges resulted in Citi revising its 2008 loss to $27.7 billion, or $5.59 per share.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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