CIT: R.I.P.?

cit1When CIT Group realized it was in really big trouble, the commercial finance company apparently thought it could count on Uncle Sam to come to the rescue. About a week ago, it leaked the news that it was considering bankruptcy and waited for the Treasury Department to respond to dire warnings about the consequences for the small and medium businesses that make up most of the company’s customer base.

After all, CIT had already received $2.3 billion in TARP money last year after converting itself to a bank holding company. Other struggling TARP recipients, like Citigroup, had been able to come back for additional infusions as Tim Geithner showed himself to be a soft touch for large financial institutions.

To the surprise of CIT, it got rebuffed by the Obama Administration and will now have to file for Chapter 11 unless some deep-pocketed investors step in. CIT, with assets of about $75 billion, is a large but not a giant institution. It thus does not seem to meet the Geithner standard: it is not too big to fail.

While it is possible to understand CIT’s frustration, the company does not deserve too much sympathy. Putting size aside, there are reasons why CIT was not exactly a worthy candidate for a taxpayer handout. This is a case in which perhaps the right question to ask was whether the company in need was ¬†too flawed to save.

For decades, CIT played a useful function in the business system with services such as commercial lending, factoring and equipment leasing. But in 1980 it developed an identity crisis as it was acquired by RCA in the first of what would be a long series of ownership changes. Two decades later it came under the control of Tyco International, the shady conglomerate headed by Dennis Kozlowski, who would later be convicted of misappropriation of corporate funds and become infamous for the extravagant lifestyle–including a $6,000 shower curtain–he enjoyed with those funds.

CIT split from Tyco in 2002 and sought to make a new name for itself. Unfortunately, the way it did that was to get into two very sleazy businesses. In 2005 it entered the student loan market. Within two years, CIT’s Student Loan Xpress was being investigated by New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo for paying kickbacks to university officials who steered students into predatory loans. Faced with a scandal, CIT agreed in May 2007 to sign a code of ethical conduct drawn up by Cuomo. It then booted out the president of Student Loan Xpress and later exited the business.

The other new endeavor was subprime home mortgages. For a while this dubious business boosted CIT’s earnings, but when the subprime market turned sour, the company took a big hit. In 2007–shortly after telling Investment Dealers Digest that “our subprime profile is strong”–it started posting losses and was forced to write down the value of its subprime portfolio by $765 million. It ended up leaving this field as well. CIT lost some $633 million in 2008.

CIT’s reputation was also tarnished in 2005, when it and two other leasing companies agreed to a $24 million settlement of charges brought in two dozen states about their links to the crooked telecom services company NorVergence.

In recent years, CIT has promoted itself using an advertising campaign based on the tag line Capital Redefined. Apparently, the new definition of capital is to engage in unethical business practices and then expect the federal government to come to your assistance when market conditions turn against you. Large or small, that kind of company is not worth saving.

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