Inside Citi's Stress Test: More like an F than a B+

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Mark Lennihan / AP

A Citibank sign at Citigroup headquarters in New York City

When the results of the government's financial stress tests were announced last week, Citigroup seemed to have dodged a bullet. The bank, long thought to be in the worst shape among the nation's largest lenders, was said to need just $5.5 billion in capital in order to return to health. No small sum, to be sure. But amazingly, what Citi was required to raise was less than half the $13.7 billion that competitor Wells Fargo was told to come up with. And far less than the nearly $34 billion that regulators said Bank of America needed to bolster its capital by in the next six months.

Dig a little deeper, though, and Citi's stress-test results look more like an F than the B+ the bank seemed to get. Among the 19 banks the government probed, Citi was found to have the lowest common capital ratio, which the government said was a key measure to protect against insolvency. What's more, Citi also got credit for a capital conversion it has yet to complete. Strip that out, and the amount of capital Citi needs balloons to nearly $63 billion, more than any of the other banks tested. (See pictures of the dangers of printing money.)

Indeed, Citi's shares initially rose on the news that it would have to raise less capital than some of its competitors. But since the full results of the stress test have come out, Citi's shares are down 8%, to a recent $3.50. That compares to a drop of just 2.5% in the same time for JPMorgan, which was deemed to be among the banks that are relatively healthy. "I think Citigroup is an interesting stock, but we don't own it," says Edward Maran, portfolio manager of the Thornburg Value Fund. "If the government gives the company the time to earn its way out of its problems, then I think the stock has a lot of upside. The question is whether it will."

These days, the government's moves seem anything but light-handed. By early June, the banks that were deemed to need capital will have to submit their money-raising plans to regulators. Government officials have said they intend to make management changes at the banks if the plans are deemed inadequate. Despite the relatively small $5.5 billion Citi was told to raise, the stress test deepened concerns about the bank. That means the hurdle Citi will have to jump in order to prove its management is up to the task could be higher than for the other banks.

In the stress tests, the government said it decided to emphasize common capital because that was the measure that ultimately leads to "lowering the risk of insolvency." Citi's common capital ratio, at just 2.3%, was closer to zero than any other of the banks the government looked at. State Street's ratio at 15.5%, which was the highest of the banks, was nearly seven times greater than Citi's. Fourteen of the banks the government examined had a common capital ratio above 5%. The next lowest ratio to Citi was Wells Fargo, which had a common capital ratio of 3.1%.

Citi's exam also included a $58 billion credit titled "Other Capital Actions." The credit is for the conversion of preferred stock that Citi says it plans to do but has not yet completed. Among the other 18 banks that were examined, only one other, Bank of America, was allowed to include a similar credit in the results of its stress test. And at $1.8 billion, BofA's credit was far less a factor in the outcome of its test than Citi's was. Since the stress tests, other banks have announced plans or have been able to quickly complete capital-raising deals. Yet, unlike Citi and BofA, none of these planned actions were included in their stress-test results. Citi's results also downplayed the damage to shareholders that will result from restoring Citi's common capital ratios. In order to put Citi back on its feet, the company's shareholders will be diluted more than any other public bank that was part of the stress test. When Citi completes its conversion of preferred shares to boost its common equity, current Citi shareholders will end up owning just 24% of the bank, down from nearly 100% today. Yes, other banks have had to issue shares in the wake of the stress test, and dilute their shareholders, but not by nearly that much.

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