Thursday, January 15, 2009

Where Citi Went Wrong

By Eric Jackson

01/15/09 - 12:26 PM EST

C , WFC (Cramer's Pick) , GS , JPM , MS , NFP

Citigroup (C Quote - Cramer on C - Stock Picks) is a mess.

From the moment Wells Fargo (WFC Quote - Cramer on WFC - Stock Picks) snatched Wachovia from under Citi CEO Vikram Pandit bank in October, Citi has stumbled.

Its stock price since then has plummeted from the low $20s to the mid-$3s today, as the market fears its decision to sell its Smith Barney business to Morgan Stanley (MS Quote - Cramer on MS - Stock Picks) will fail to quench its need for capital in the coming months.

So what caused this massive implosion? A lot of Citi watchers have assigned blame for the large drop in the bank's market cap, from $300 billion to $30 billion.

Pandit has been widely characterized as a weak and indecisive CEO in the press. The New York Times blamed Bob Rubin and risk management headed by Tom Maheras -- both are now gone. In a recent interview, large Citi shareholder Prince Alwaleed bin Talal pointed the finger at former CEO Chuck Prince. A few (including John Reed, the man who merged Citi with Travelers in 1998) have also pinned Citi's shortcomings on the "financial supermarket" model masterminded by Sandy Weill. (On Tuesday, Pandit announced Citi would dismantle that supermarket model, returning to its old Citicorp roots.)

It turns out that Citi's biggest mistake leading to its downfall did occur in 1998, but it wasn't the April super-merger of Citicorp and Travelers -- it was the November ousting of Jamie Dimon by then-Chair and CEO Sandy Weill over a disagreement with Weill's daughter.

Had Dimon stayed on, he -- not Chuck Prince -- would have succeeded Weill and Citi would have avoided many of its missteps. Instead, Dimon moved to Chicago to head up Bank One, later triumphantly returning to New York when Bank One merged with JPMorgan Chase (JPM Quote - Cramer on JPM - Stock Picks). Dimon, who could now stare at his former employer down Park Avenue, now serves as CEO and chaiman of JPMorgan.

Wall Street has watched the spread in performance of the two banks ever since. JPMorgan's stock is down 30% since the merger with Bank One on Jan. 15, 2004, while Citi's stock is down 92%.

The reasons for corporate blow-ups are never simple; it's usually true that every employee is replaceable. However, Citi has never been the same company since Dimon was pushed out.

Even a decade ago, most knowledgeable observers knew Dimon was going to be a special CEO one day. Sallie Krawcheck (who was a Citi analyst at the time) said back then: "Investors are asking two questions: What should I do with my Citigroup shares and where is Jamie going next so that I can buy the stock?''

Dimon had been a longtime protégé of Sandy Weill's. After graduating from Harvard Business School in 1982, Dimon turned down a job offer from Goldman Sachs (GS Quote - Cramer on GS - Stock Picks) to go and work for Weill, whom he knew through his father. Over the next 15 years, the two built an empire: Commerical Credit, Primerica, Travelers and Citi.

But in late 1998, after announcing the biggest merger ever, Weill and Dimon sparred over Weill's daughter, Jessica Bibliowicz. Dimon refused to give Bibliowicz the job of chief asset manager of Travelers, as Weill demanded. What's more, Dimon also wouldn't agree to promote Weill's son, Marc, to head up Salomon's bond group. Weill demanded that Dimon resign.

Jessica went on to run National Financial Partners (NFP Quote - Cramer on NFP - Stock Picks), a $100 million financial advisor that has seen its stock swoon by 93% in the past year as Barron's has written negatively about its future prospects. Having left Citi in 2000, Marc now heads a small money management firm in Greenwich, Conn., called City Light Capital.

All the World's a Stage

The Shakespearean similarities between what happened with Weill and Dimon are uncanny. Jaime Dimon was the Earl of Kent challenging King Lear and Weill sided with blood over an adopted son.

Weill now has had to watch the dismantling of everything he spent his career building. The Wall Street Journal quoted two friends who know Weill as characterizing his mood ranging from anger to despondence since hearing that Citi's "financial super-market" model was being disassembled.

Vikram Pandit was a poor choice as CEO in December 2007, as he's waited much too long to change Citi's status quo until forced by the government, but it's likely that neither John Thain, Ken Lewis nor Sandy Weill circa 1995 could have done much better given the circumstances the bank was facing prior to Pandit's hiring.

It's not 20-20 hindsight to say that Citi's greatest mistake was letting Dimon walk out the door. Many knew this at the time; when he said goodbye on the Salomon Smith Barney trading floor, 1,000 traders gave him a standing ovation.

One bad move does not usually cost a career or a company. Life has a way of giving us lots of "do-overs" to course-correct our mistakes. However, there are decisions that stick with us for the rest of our lives and we always look back on and regret. Weill's hubris in pushing Dimon out will always be looked back on as the beginning of the end of Citigroup.

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