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Citigroup (Mark Lennihan)
Citigroup (Mark Lennihan)

Wall Street

The sorry state(ment) of a former banker Add to ...

Sorry has so many meanings.

There's the "sorry" you blurt out when you inadvertently jostle someone in a crowd.

Or the heartfelt "I'm really sorry" you offer to a wronged a friend.

And there's the pointed barb of "I'm sorry I ever met you."

So what are we to think when the former chief executive officer who engineered the merger that created Citigroup Inc. apologizes for the wrecked state of what was once the world's largest bank?

John Reed insists he's "sorry" about what's happened at Citigroup Inc.

"These are people I love and care about," the 70-year-old recently told Bloomberg News. "You could imagine emotionally it's not easy to see what's happened."

Citigroup shares peaked at nearly $60 (U.S.) in 2000 - the year Mr. Reed retired with a $5-million bonus, a nice pension, a New York office and an assistant. That was two years after the $85-billion merger with Travelers Group Inc.

Mr. Reed, of course, wasn't directly responsible for what happened next.

Citigroup lost nearly $28-billion in 2008 after posting $118-billion in writedowns, and the bleeding has continued this year. Since 2007, it has unloaded $300-billion in assets and eliminated 100,000 jobs.

Those woes forced Citibank into the arms of the U.S. government, which now owns 34 per cent of the company after making a $45-billion capital injection and offering a $300-billion loss backstop.

Citibank's shares are trading at a few pennies above $4. That's off the low of near $1 a share earlier this year, but a long way from the heady days of 2000. Billions in investor wealth has vanished, perhaps forever.

Even the most optimistic analysts say it could be years before the stock gets back to $10.

It's not clear if Mr. Reed is sorry about any of that, or all of that.

His greatest regret seems to be Citigroup's role in doing away with the walls that once separated conventional Main Street banking and Wall Street investment banking.

Mr. Reed of Citigroup and Sanford Weill of Travelers, which merged with Citigroup in 1998, joined the rest of the financial services industry in feverishly lobbying Congress to dismantle what was left of the Depression-era Glass-Steagall Act. And in 1999, Congress complied, paving the way for Travelers' Salomon Smith Barney investment dealer unit to be folded into Citigroup.

At the time, Messrs. Reed and Weill issued a statement predicting that the change would "unleash the creativity of our industry" and that "investors, savers and insureds" would be better off.

It hasn't quite worked out that way. Mr. Reed now acknowledges that a separation of investment banking from deposit-taking and consumer banking is a good idea.

"We learn from our mistakes," he bluntly told Bloomberg. "When you're running a company, you do what you think is right for the stockholders. Right now, I'm looking at this as a citizen."

He argues that investment banks that engage in trading should not also be permitted to take deposits.

"I would compartmentalize the industry for the same reason you compartmentalize ships," he said. "If you have a leak, the leak doesn't spread and sink the whole vessel."

Deregulation is at the heart of Citibank's stumbles. In the post-Reed era, Citigroup rapidly expanded its consumer lending operations, getting deep into the troubled mortgage business. And its trading and underwriting arms bet big on mortgage bonds and other risky instruments, such as collateralized debt obligations, or CDOs. That in turn destabilized its conventional banking operations.

Mr. Reed insists he acted in the interests of shareholders.

But his apology isn't so much directed at them, or even Citibank employees and American taxpayers. These groups have all suffered greatly, and deserve a heartfelt apology from someone.

Rather, Mr. Reed's regret is that the greatest accomplishment of a long Wall Street career created a financial house so shaky it is now a ward of the state.

It is also a remarkable acknowledgment from a former banking industry insider and champion of deregulation that it was all a bad idea.

Now, we're all sorry.

bmckenna@globeandmail.com

 

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