Pandit's profit pipe dream

The Citigroup CEO suggests the bank is on the verge of returning to sustained profitability. Too bad most of Wall Street disagrees.

Colin Barr, senior writer

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Citi chief Vikram Pandit is stressing the big bank's strengths as the downturn deepens.
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Citi's market value has plunged to just $7 billion this week from $274 billion at its 2006 peak.

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Citigroup chief executive officer Vikram Pandit is nothing if not an optimist.

Shares of his big bank soared as much as 27% early Tuesday after reports circulated about a memo Pandit sent employees Monday night that extolled Citi's virtues. In the memo, obtained by CNN Tuesday, Pandit said the troubled bank, which has already received $45 billion in government assistance, was profitable during the first two months of 2009.

Investors have been wondering if surging loan losses will lead to a fourth round of federal aid that could wipe out common shareholders and perhaps lead to a management change.

Late last month, the government agreed to convert some of the preferred shares it owns in Citi (C, Fortune 500) to common stock, a move that could give taxpayers up to a 36% ownership stake in the bank.

But even with Citi shares hovering just above a dollar each, Pandit insists he is dealing from a position of underappreciated strength.

"In addition to our strong capital position, I am most encouraged with the strength of our business so far in 2009," Pandit said in the memo. "In fact, we are profitable through the first two months of 2009 and are having our best quarter-to-date performance since the third quarter of 2007."

Of course, that's not saying much. Since that quarter, Citi has lost $28.5 billion, as the company has been forced to write down the value of money-losing bond market and derivatives bets.

With a few weeks left in the first quarter, Pandit stopped short of predicting that Citi would make money for the entire period. But he implied he expects Citi to return to at least modest, sustained profitability soon.

Pandit's turnaround optimism isn't widely shared on Wall Street. Analysts polled by Thomson Reuters expect the company to lose 17 cents a share in the first quarter and 74 cents a share for the year.

Those dour forecasts reflect in part the sobering trends in the banking industry. Banks have been hammered by losses on home loans, but the industry is now bracing for soaring defaults on credit card loans and tumbling values in the once-scorching market for commercial real estate.

Observers continue to doubt that Citi, which has been among the institutions hit hardest by bubble-era excesses in the credit markets, has fully shaken free of those burdens.

"We believe the risks are skewed more to the bear case than the bull case," wrote Morgan Stanley analyst Betsy Graseck in a note to clients last week. She said that Citi had a much riskier basket of problem assets -- such as subprime loans, collateralized debt obligations, and commercial real estate mortgage-backed securities -- than other big banks she follows.

Despite those concerns, Pandit said in the memo that "even if near-term conditions deteriorate significantly, we expect to be able to realize the majority of our DTAs," or deferred tax assets -- losses the company has accumulated and hopes to apply against taxes on future profits.

Investors have been wondering if Citi would have to write down the value of the tax assets to reflect its poor performance.

Goldman Sachs analyst Richard Ramsden pointed out in a note last week that while many major banks have only reported losses for the past two quarters, Citi has lost money for five straight quarters. That, Ramsden added, increases the risk of a big DTA-related impairment for Citi.

The impairment issue aside, in order to eventually use the tax assets -- and, in the meantime, to justify counting these intangible assets as part of its capital cushion against losses -- Citi must soon start churning out steady profits.

Barclays Capital analyst Jason Goldberg wrote last week that Citi would need to generate some $85 billion of taxable income over a period as long as 20 years to fully realize deferred tax assets.

While that sounds like a lot, it's worth recalling that Citi made an average of $18.5 billion a year between 2003 and 2006, at the height of the credit bubble. And with Citi and other government-backed rivals able to borrow at ultralow rates, there should be ample opportunity for Citi to make money on its bread-and-butter lending businesses.

That is, assuming it's able to survive the worst of the current recession, in which some experts expect loan losses to be twice as high as they were during the 1991 downturn.

Citi may well be able to get across the bridge to the other side of the current economic abyss - though it's anyone's guess how much more assistance it may need to do so.

"This is in line with Pandit's practice of taking the dog's tail off an inch at a time," said Lee A. Sheppard, a tax attorney and contributing editor at the tax journal Tax Notes. "Maybe they think Congress will make the losses and credits refundable."

Talkback: Do you know any heroes of the economy? Someone like Leonard Abess, the Miami banker who shared his $60 million bonus with his employees? Or maybe someone acting on a smaller scale to help those suffering during this recession. Maybe you? Send an email to realstories@cnnmoney.com, and your nominee could be profiled in an upcoming CNNMoney.com article. To top of page

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