Citi's TARP Repayment: The Downside for a Troubled Bank

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A man walks by a Citibank branch in New York City

Can Citigroup survive without a government safety net? Some analysts aren't sure.

On Monday, Citigroup said it had worked out a deal to repay $20 billion in government bailout money and terminate a loss-sharing agreement the bank had with the government for Citi's riskiest assets. Citi CEO Vickram Pandit said the moves were signs that his company was returning to financial health. The deal would also remove much of the government's pay restrictions on the bank. "These actions move us closer to ending a very difficult period for our company," wrote Pandit in an internal memo to Citi employees.

But analysts say Citi's rush to repay the assistance it got through the government's Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) will make the bank weaker, not stronger. The move will reduce Citi's capital ratios and hurt earnings; it may also accelerate a retreat of foreign investors from the company's shares. Worse, the government is demanding stricter terms from Citi than it did from Bank of America on the repayment deal it struck just a week ago. The different treatment shows that the government remains more concerned about Citi's finances than those of its rivals.

Veteran analyst Richard Bove of Rochdale Securities, who had been recommending Citi's shares since the summer, downgraded the stock on news that it was going to repay TARP from a "buy" to a "sell" rating. "What does it do for the company? Management can increase [executive] salaries," says Bove, referring to the fact that Citi will now be free of the government's compensation rules. "What else? Nothing."

Indeed, Citi's shares fell on the news that it was repaying TARP, down $0.27, or nearly 7%, to $3.68 a share.

Citi's deal to pay back the government was reportedly hashed out over a week's worth of marathon negotiations following Bank of America's repayment last week of $45 billion in government assistance. Citi did not want to be one of the few remaining big banks still using the government's crutch.

Citi's effort to repay the government will remove some of the stigma surrounding the firm that has evolved since the start of the financial crisis. Treasury officials say Citi will no longer be considered one of the companies that have received "exceptional assistance" from the government. That means pay czar Kenneth Feinberg will no long have a say over salaries at the company. What's more, the company will save $1.6 billion in annual preferred-stock dividend payments it would have owed the government on its TARP loan.

Nonetheless, the deal will be costly for Citi. In order to exit TARP, the bank will have to sell $20.5 billion in new shares. Analysts estimate the stock sale will lower the company's earnings per share by about 20%. "One of the basic problems for [Citigroup's] valuation is that it has too many shares as a result of its many rounds of capital raising and exchange offers," says analyst David Hensler, who follows Citi for research firm Creditsights.

But raising all the capital to pay back TARP won't improve Citi's balance sheet either. In fact, it will do the opposite. Bove estimates that TARP repayment will lower the company's Tier 1 capital ratio to just over 11%, from a recent 12.8%. What's more, with the elimination of the government guarantee of Citi's riskiest assets, which could expose the bank to as much as $250 billion in additional losses, the bank's Tier 1 ratio will sink further, to 10%, according to Hensler.

But Christopher Whalen, managing director of research firm Institutional Risk Analytics, thinks the problem with Citi's repayment has less to do with capital ratios and more to do with waning confidence in the bank around the world. In early December, the investment arm of the government of Kuwait sold its entire investment stake in Citigroup. "Foreign investors like to see the government's stake in Citi," says Whalen. "If the government gets out, investors around the world will flee."

Finally, the deal Citi struck with the government may indicate to investors that the bank is actually in worse shape than many thought. To exit TARP, Bank of America was required to raise $18.5 billion in new capital, or about 40% of the $45 billion in capital it repaid the government. Other banks have had to raise as much as half of the amount they want to pay back the government in new capital. Citigroup, though, is required to raise more than 100% of what it wants to pay back — $20.5 billion in new capital, half a billion dollars more than it will pay Uncle Sam. That suggests the government is still worried that Citi has significant losses on its books and needs to hold more capital than other banks.

"Letting Bank of America repay its TARP funds was ridiculous, but letting Citi out is even more problematic," says Whalen.