Citi Flexes SPAC Muscles for a Record Profit Under New CEO

Citigroup Inc.’s equities desks, undersized among Wall Street’s giants, are proving strong enough to lift the firm to a record quarterly profit just as a new chief executive officer takes the helm.

The bank reaped the most revenue from stock trading in the first quarter since 2009, while fees from underwriting shares quadrupled, helped by the firm’s dominance in taking blank-check companies known as SPACs to public markets. That offset a slump in revenue from Citigroup’s massive fixed-income trading division.

The bank also said it will exit retail banking in 13 markets across Asia and Europe, the Middle East and Africa, as part of CEO Jane Fraser’s ongoing review of the firm’s strategy. Both announcements helped boost Citigroup’s stock as much as 3% in early New York trading, before shares pared gains and fell less than 1% to $72.3 at 1:27 p.m.

Citi Flexes SPAC Muscles for a Record Profit Under New CEO

“It’s been a better-than-expected start to the year,” Fraser, who took over last month, said in a statement Thursday. She credited the “strong performance” of the company’s Wall Street operations and said the firm is optimistic about its outlook for the economy.

Citi Flexes SPAC Muscles for a Record Profit Under New CEO

Citigroup has raised more than any other bank for special-purpose acquisition companies this year, as managers of the vehicles set out to hunt unspecified takeover targets. That helped the firm reap $876 million in fees from equity underwriting. Quarterly stock-trading revenue, typically less than $1 billion at Citigroup, surged to $1.48 billion.

But Citigroup is better known for its prowess in foreign exchange -- markets that remained sleepy during the period. The CBOE EuroCurrency Volatility Index, which measures swings in euro-dollar options, dropped for the fourth consecutive quarter as 2021 began, the longest streak since the start of 2008.

Altogether, Citigroup’s revenue from trading fixed-income, currencies and commodities slipped 5% to $4.55 billion. While that topped analyst estimates, it paled in comparison to the 31% and 15% gains posted on Wednesday by rivals Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and JPMorgan Chase & Co., respectively.

Total revenue in the quarter slipped to $19.33 billion, hurt by a 14% drop in revenue from the firm’s sprawling global consumer bank. Net income climbed to $7.94 billion, topping the $5.1 billion projected by analysts.

Uncertain is whether the SPAC boom may continue. Regulators in the U.S. are voicing concerns that already have put the brakes on new deals this quarter. Citigroup Chief Financial Officer Mark Mason said on an earnings call that he’d expect to see a decline in SPACs as rates push investors to “surer returns”.

Even still, Fraser can invest some of Citigroup’s haul into upgrading the firm’s controls and technology after regulators dinged the company for deficiencies last year. Those efforts contributed to a 4% increase in expenses to $11.07 billion in the first quarter, albeit below the $11.17 billion estimated by analysts.

As part of the remediation effort, Citigroup will make its next submissions to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency this quarter and will hand in full plans to the OCC and the Fed in the second half, Fraser said on the earnings call.

Meanwhile, the firm is pointing to signs of an improving economy. The lender released $3.85 billion that it previously stockpiled to cover bad loans as the pandemic sent unemployment soaring and shuttered businesses across the country last year.

Another bright spot at the start of 2021 was the end to a slide in spending on Citigroup cards, which climbed 1% in the first three months. Still, the world’s largest credit-card issuer saw balances on those cards fall 14% as consumers socked away savings and avoided racking up new debt. Banks including JPMorgan have suggested that’s evidence that Americans have their finances in order and are ready to spend once vaccinations unleash commerce.

“This is the healthiest we have seen the consumer emerge from a crisis in recent history,” Fraser said. Citigroup now doesn’t expect losses to materialize in its U.S. loan portfolio until the second half of next year.

Retail Banking Exit

Citigroup has already begun the process of exiting some consumer banking franchises and could be out of some regions as soon as this quarter, Fraser said on the call, adding they’d be no “fire sales.” The steps would have no net impact on headcount because of additional hiring in its wealth business and for its regulatory overhaul, Mason said on a separate call with journalists.

The lender will exit retail banking in Australia, Bahrain, China, India, Indonesia, South Korea, Malaysia, the Philippines, Poland, Russia, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam. The firm will continue to offer products in those markets to customers of its institutional clients group, which houses the private bank, cash-management arm and investment-banking and trading businesses.

The bank will operate its consumer-banking franchise in both regions from four wealth centers in Singapore, Hong Kong, United Arab Emirates and London, it said.

“While the other 13 markets have excellent businesses, we don’t have the scale we need to compete,” Fraser said. “We believe our capital, investment dollars and other resources are better deployed against higher returning opportunities in wealth management and our institutional businesses in Asia.”

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