Pump and Slump: Will Citi Sleep with the Fishes?

A couple of years ago, the mighty Citigroup traded at around $50 a share. Today, March 5, the price hovered around $1 and for a while was below a buck. In other words, one of the largest financial institutions in the world is in effect a penny stock. At one time, a descent to that level would have been enough to get a company delisted from the New York Stock Exchange, but standards have been relaxed.

Penny stocks have traditionally been associated with unscrupulous brokerage practices, such as the “pump and dump” scheme graphically illustrated during some episodes of The Sopranos (photo). A look back at the record of Citi during the past decade does not suggest a moral compass much different from the wise guys of Northern New Jersey. As U.S. PIRG Education Fund notes in its recent report Failed Bailout, Citi helped crooked companies such as Enron carry out deceptive transactions and itself set up scores of entities in offshore tax havens such as the Cayman Islands in order to avoid both taxes and oversight.

Citi’s actions had an impact beyond its own unjust enrichment. As Multinational Monitor editor Rob Weissman and his colleagues show in their new report Sold Out, Citigroup played a key role—thanks to $19 million in campaign contributions and $88 million in lobbying expenditures—in bringing about the demise of the Glass-Steagall Act and other deregulatory moves that paved the way for the current meltdown of the financial system.

Yet Citi’s management is, to a great extent, no longer in control of the company’s fate. Today it is the federal government that is in effect trying to pump up the bank and its stock. The Obama Administration, regrettably, is perpetuating the idea that Citi is too big to fail and thus requires a seemingly unlimited commitment of public resources.

Unfortunately for U.S. taxpayers, the pumping will not be followed by a timely dumping of the federal holdings in Citi at a fat profit. In fact, the federal capital infusions, loss-sharing agreements and loan guarantees are not stabilizing the company and pushing up its stock price. The more the feds put into the bank, the less the market seems to think it is worth. This downward move is attributed in significant part to short-selling of Citi’s common stock by hedge funds. At one time, those funds were apparently in cahoots with Citi. Last fall the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations charged that Citi was one of the banks that had helped offshore hedge funds engage in tax avoidance. I guess there really is no honor among thieves.

The U.S. government is now in the ridiculous position of having made commitments potentially costing hundreds of billions of dollars to a bank that the stock market, as of today, thinks is worth a total of only about $5 billion. As long as the Administration avoids the seemingly inevitable need to nationalize and reorganize Citi and the other large zombie banks, its strategy amounts to little more than “pump and slump.” Despite the efforts of the feds, the bank whose motto is “the Citi never sleeps” may soon be sleeping with the fishes.

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