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Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan, a young Pakistani, is arrested in Lahore after six weeks of surveillance by Pakistani authorities in conjunction with US intelligence agencies. The US and Pakistanis learned of Noor Khan after arresting another al-Qaeda suspect, Musaad Aruchi, a month before (see June 12, 2004), and they had been tracking him since then. Noor Khan is taken to a high-security prison by Pakistani authorities, who resisted pressure from the CIA to let them completely handle the operation. (Burke, Harris, and Bright 8/8/2004) American intelligence agents find what they later call a “treasure trove” of information in Noor Khan’s computers and documents. (CNN 8/2/2004) Khan is a communications hub of sorts for al-Qaeda. He is in frequent contact with dozens of other al-Qaeda terrorists around the world and passing messages back and forth from more senior al-Qaeda operatives. Former National Security Council official Gideon Rose will later say, “It is obviously a very serious victory. It is obvious that there is a real find here.” (Burke, Harris, and Bright 8/8/2004) Khan, who speaks fluent English, is not just a center for expediting clandestine communications between al-Qaeda leaders and their underlings, but also handles and collates documents, reports, maps, and other information, and sometimes performs his own intelligence-gathering, usually on trips to Britain. (Moreau, Hussain, and Yousafzai 8/8/2004) Khan’s computer contains detailed surveillance information about five US buildings—the Stock Exchange and Citigroup’s headquarters in New York City, the Prudential building in Newark, and the International Monetary Fund and World Bank headquarters in Washington—all possible targets for future al-Qaeda attacks, though the information is all from 2000 and 2001. Other sites in New York City and San Francisco are mentioned, and meticulous information about London’s Heathrow Airport is also found. Pakistani intelligence officials believe that the information indicates a “present” threat, and so inform their US counterparts. Later in the month, the Pakistanis convince Khan to “turn,” or become a double agent. Khan will subsequently send e-mails to dozens of operatives all requesting that they contact him immediately (see July 24-25, 2004). (Burke, Harris, and Bright 8/8/2004)
Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit is in talks with the US government to increase the amount of public ownership of the bank in a move both politicians and bank bosses hope will avert the need for the ailing corporation to be taken into FDIC receivership (see March 15, 2008). Talks commenced after Citigroup shares dropped more than 20 percent in late trading on Friday, leaving the business with a share value of $10.6 billion, with balance sheet assets of $1.95 trillion. Government receivership of Citigroup is seen as politically unpalatable, and US taxpayers could conceivably own up to 40 percent of Citigroup. Economists see government takeover of the corporation as evidence of other major banks struggling with insolvency. The failure of major banks will have calamitous repercussions. The US treasury says it remains committed to helping the banking industry recover without taking complete control. “Because our economy functions better when financial institutions are well managed in the private sector, the strong presumption… is that banks should remain in private hands,” the Treasury Department said in a joint statement with the Federal Reserve. Speculation that a major Wall Street institution could be taken into public ownership toppled the market on Friday, February 20; likely targets were heavily rumored to be Citigroup and Bank of America. Bank of America lost nearly half its share value in three days before rallying late Friday afternoon. The latest talks center on a Treasury Department proposal to convert preference shares in Citigroup into new ordinary shares. This move would not involve additional taxpayer funds, but taxpayers would surrender the guaranteed dividends that come with preference stock, as well as some degree of protection in the event of a corporate collapse. Serious questions remain, such as the price at which new shares are issued. Estimates of the size of the government’s eventual stake range from 25 percent to 40 percent. With this move, Barack Obama’s administration would become a major presence on Citigroup’s ordinary share register, thus diluting the interests of existing investors, and heightening fears of political pressure being brought on US banks. Some analysts suggest that banks relying on taxpayer bail-outs are being encouraged to focus lending and liquidity on the national US market. (Bowers and Wearden 2/23/2009)
The latest government bailout gives Citigroup bond holders excellent terms and doesn’t provide the bank with new money. Instead, Citigroup cut expenses with the elimination of preferred stock dividends, and also converted shares into common equity at an above-market-value of $3.25, positioning itself to take the first hit if it encounters additional losses. Analysts are predicting that the company’s losses will continue to increase. Since the beginning of 2009, Citigroup’s stock has fallen 78 percent. “Debt holders could eventually be required to participate in further government-led restructuring actions,” Standard and Poor’s says. (Reilly 3/2/2009) Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit tells investors that increasing the bank’s “tangible” common equity from $29.7 billion to as much as $81 billion should “take confidence issues off the table,” about the bank’s loss absorption ability. The bank lost $27.7 billion in 2008, and is predicted to lose $1.24 billion during the first six months of 2009. “There’s no difference here,” says Christopher Whalen, co-founder of Institutional Risk Analytics, a Torrance, California risk-advisory firm. “It won’t fix revenue, and you’re still going to see loss rates.” Whalen says that the government’s efforts are mainly protecting other financial institutions and foreign goverments that are Citigroup bonds holders. “The taxpayer is funding the operating loss and protecting the bondholders,” Whalen notes. “The subsidy for the banks will become one of the biggest lines in Washington’s budget.”
Government Should Organize Citigroup, AIG Bondholders - Whalen also says it would be better if the government organized Citigroup and insurer American International Group Inc. bondholders, since the insurer received a $150 billion US bailout, and also made a deal with the government to convert some of its debt to equity. US government investment fell by more than 50 percent, and the government plans to convert up to $25 billion of its preferred stock to common shares, gaining a 36 percent stake in the bank. At Friday’s closing price of $1.50, government investment is worth approximately $11.5 billion. The bank itself has a stock market value of $8.2 billion as of market closing on February 27.
Analyst: Investors Should Avoid Citigroup Shares - Richard Ramsden, head of a group of analysts at Goldman Sachs Group, recommends that investors avoid investing in Citigroup shares: “It is unclear whether this is the last round of capital restructuring, which means that existing equity may be further diluted in the future.” The bank’s move to convert preferred shares to common equity led Moody’s Investors Service to adjust its senior debt rating for the bank from A3 to A2. Standard and Poor’s also changed its outlook on the bank’s debt from negative to stable. “Citi will face a tough credit cycle in the next two years, which will likely result in weak and volatile earnings,” S&P analyst Scott Sprinzen says. “We cannot rule out the possibility that further government support may prove necessary.” With the first two Citigroup rescue bailouts, the US Treasury bought $45 billion of preferred stock, and the Federal Reserve and FDIC guaranteed the bank against all but $29 billion of losses on a $301 billion portfolio of assets. With the third bailout, the Treasury, the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation, Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, and other preferred stockholders, agreed to take common stock at $3.25 a share, giving up dividends. The chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Charles Rangel (D-NY), says: “The administration and the past administration have tried so many different ways that we can only hope and pray that this time they get it right. It seems like with the banks it is a never-ending thing.” (Harper 2/28/2009)
Third US Rescue Forces Citigroup Board Changes - The Obama administration demonstrated its willingness to force changes on executives at top banks that receive taxpayer-funded rescue packages by pressing Citigroup to reorganize its 15-member board with new, more independent members. The move sends a message to Wall Street that there are consequences when taxpayer dollars are used to save them. “The government is the new boss, and the new executive committee is no longer on Park Avenue,” says Michael Holland who, as chairman and founder of New York’s Holland & Co., manages nearly $4 billion in investments. (Katz and Keoun 3/2/2009)
While California grapples with budget problems as a result of the havoc wreaked by the global recession, a collection of banks—Bank of America, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, and JP Morgan Chase among them—say that commencing Friday, July 10, they will not accept state IOUs, adding pressure for the state to close its $26.3 billion budget gap.
IOUs Result of Credit Crisis - The banks initially made a commitment to accept IOU payments when the economically devastated state announced that it would issue more than $3 billion in IOUs beginning on or around July 1. Since the beginning of the year, state leaders have tried and failed to agree on a budget, and Governor Arnold Swarzenegger imposed monthly one to three-day monthly furloughs on at least 200,000 state employees; the furloughs are still in effect. The state began issuing IOUs—‘individual registered warrants’—to hundreds of thousands of creditors one day after the end of the 2009 fiscal year. John Chiang, California state controller, said, “Without IOUs, California will run out of cash by the end of July.” California’s annual budget is the eighth largest in the world. If the state continues issuing warrants, creditors will be forced to hold them until their maturity on October 2 or find other banks willing to honor them before maturity. The maturity of the IOUs will allow the state to pay back creditors directly at a 3.75 percent annual interest rate.
Response by California Bankers Association - California Bankers Association spokeswoman Beth Mills says that some banks might work with creditors to develop a short-term resolution, such as extending lines of credit to creditors. Mills says the banks were concerned that there aren’t processes in place to accept IOUs; she said that some of the banks were also worried about fraud issues, and notes that the July 10 deadline was not set by all banks. She adds that dozens of state credit unions would continue to accept IOUs.
Significance of California's Problems - Twelve percent of the nation’s gross domestic product comes from California and the state has the largest share of retail sales of any state. Retail consultant Burt P. Flickinger, managing director of Strategic Resource Group, explains, “California is the key catalyst for US retail sales, and if California falls further you will see the US economy suffer significantly.” Flickinger warns of more national retail chain and brand suppliers bankruptcies. At one dollar for every 80 cents, the state sends more in tax revenues to the federal government than it receives in return. Although California’s deep recession primarily only affects the state itself, it could make it harder for a national economic recovery since, because of its size—38.3 million people—it affects businesses from Texas to Michigan. Even if lawmakers solve the state’s deficit swiftly, there will likely be more government furloughs and layoffs with tens of billions of dollars more in spending cuts. This could cause a ripple effect throughout the state’s economy and fear of even more job losses. Jeff Michael, director of the Business Forecasting Center for the University of the Pacific at Stockton, predicts that one million jobs are expected to be lost in the state in two years, with unemployment estimated to peak at 12.3 percent in early 2010. In 2008, for the first time since the Great Depression, personal income of Californians declined. Income revenue fell 34 percent for the first five months of 2009. (Williams 6/29/2009; Knutson 7/7/2009)
Since implementing a program to help millions of homeowners restructure their mortgages to prevent foreclosure, only 235,247 loans have actually been modified, according to the US Treasury Department in its first progress report. After the plan was announced in February, the first banking institutions began accepting applications in April. Between now and 2012, the Obama administration says it is on track to assist 4 million homeowners. The report occurs a week after the administration summoned institutions to Washington to discuss speeding up the program after large numbers of borrowers’ complaints that assistance was barely occurring. The Obama administration plans 500,000 modifications by November 1, and hopes to hold the institutions responsible for their performance with the release of monthly reports that allow consumers to see which banks are slow to implement the plan. So far, institutions have extended offers to 15 percent or 406,542 homeowners in danger of losing their homes, with uneven performances by 38 participating servicers. Morgan Stanley’s subsidiary, Saxon Mortgage Services, tops the list with 25 percent of its delinquent loans placed in trial modifications. Saxon is followed by Aurora Loan Services, a Lehman Brothers Bank subsidiary, with 21 percent. GMAC Mortgage, partially owned by the US government, has put 20 percent of its troubled loans into trial modifications, while major banks JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, and Bank of America have late loan trial modifications of 20 percent, 15 percent, 6 percent, and 5 percent respectively. The lenders acknowledge that they must improve their performance, and say that they are committed to President Obama’s foreclosure prevention plan, stressing that they were already performing modifications prior to the administration’s program. Wells Fargo says that it will soon have the ability to send eligible borrowers trial modification agreements within 48 hours. “We set a high bar for ourselves in terms of customer service, and we didn’t hit that bar in all cases in the first seven months of this year,” says Mike Heid, co-president of Wells Fargo Home Mortgage, “We have added 4,000 employees to our loan workout division this year. JPMorgan Chase says it has another 150,000 applications in need of processing and is currently training an extra 950 workout specialists hired earlier in 2009, bringing its modification staff to 3,500 people. “We know we’ve got more work to do,” says Chase spokesman Tom Kelly. “But the bank is pleased with its performance to date.” CitiGroup’s mortgage agency, CitiMortgage, added 1,400 staffers to its modification team, with 800 dedicated to loss mitigation at its recently opened Tucson, AZ call center. It began placing troubled borrowers in trial modifications in early June. “In the next quarter, one can expect the pace will be even higher,” Sanjiv Das, CitiMortgage head, says. Bank of America says it needs to improve its reach out efforts, while noting that it holds nearly one in four trial modifications offered under the Obama plan and has extended nearly 100,000 offers, although only 28,000 trial modifications are in process. Bank of America purchased mortgage giant Countrywide Financial last year, and has the largest number of eligible delinquent loans with almost 800,000. Borrowers have been pressuring the Obama administration as well as servicers and are complaining that servicers are not responding to applications and calls, are losing their paperwork, and are not making timely decisions. Servicers say they are increasing their staffing and upgrading their computer systems to handle the hefty increase in applications. Says Michael Barr, assistant US Treasury secretary for financial institutions, “We are working with servicers to ensure that they can adequately implement the program and servicers are increasing staff and training, but they must also treat borrowers more respectfully and respond in a much timelier manner.” (Luhby 8/9/2009)
Having received what the Obama administration calls “exceptional assistance,” American International Group (AIG), Citigroup, Bank of America, General Motors (GM), GMAC, Chrysler, and Chrysler Financial are now meeting with executive pay czar, Kenneth Feinberg, and must submit 2009 pay plans for their top 25 executives. In turn, Feinberg must perform a 60-day assessment while working with the seven companies on their salary configurations. Plans for the other 75 executives of the seven corporations are due later. Exorbitant executive pay and bonuses has its critics, with many outraged that the companies are collecting taxpayer money only to pay out expensive bonuses during a massive recession. Others fear that the feds have insinuated themselves too deeply into private business affairs. Feinberg himself admits that his job has built-in conflicts. “Historically, the American people frown on the notion of government insinuating itself into the private marketplace,” he says in an interview, one day after his appointment. “My answer to those critics is I understand that concern, I share that concern, and the question is how do you strike a balance between that legitimate concern and the populist outrage at prior industry compensation practices?” The Obama administration has already seen and experienced taxpayers’ fury; Feinberg hopes to avoid such outrage. Corporations must prove to him that they are rewarding good performance and discouraging undue risk-taking. “We are not going to provide a running commentary on that process, but it’s clear that Mr. Feinberg has broad authority to make sure that compensation at those firms strikes an appropriate balance,” say US Treasury Department spokespersons, while noting that Feinberg can’t force companies to renege on contract obligations executed prior to February 12, 2009. However, this hasn’t prevented cries of foul play by critics upset over excessive government interference in private businesses. “No matter which way I turn, you’re facing criticism either from those who are appalled at what these companies did versus those who question the value of the government getting involved,” Feinberg says. The recently appointed executive compensation czar is used to dealing with contentious sides having served as compensation fund chairman for the families of victims of the September 11 attacks. (Jaffe 8/12/2009)
A list of 10 companies that have avoided paying US income taxes is provided by Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who is pushing for legislation that will close the legal tax loopholes that allow large corporations to avoid the bulk of their tax responsibilities. Chicago Sun-Times reporter Lynn Sweet writes, “Some people call the income tax system with generous loopholes for big companies corporate welfare or corporate entitlements.” Sanders’s list, based on returns and Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) documents filed in 2009 and earlier, includes:
ExxonMobil. The oil giant made $19 billion in profits in 2009, but paid no federal income taxes, and received a $156 million tax rebate.
Bank of America (BoA). The financial corporation made $4.4 billion in profits in 2009, and received nearly $1 trillion in Federal Reserve and Treasury Department “bailout” funds. The bank received a $1.9 billion tax refund.
General Electric. This multinational conglomerate made $26 billion in profits in the US, and over the last five years has received $4.1 billion in tax refunds.
Chevron. The oil giant made $10 billion in profits in 2009, and received a $19 million refund from the IRS.
Boeing. The defense contractor received a $30 billion contract from the US Department of Defense in 2009 to build 179 airborne tankers, and received a $124 million tax refund.
Valero Energy. This energy corporation, the 25th largest company in the US, garnered $68 billion in sales in 2009, and received $157 million in tax refunds. Over the last three years, Valero has received a $134 million tax break from the oil and gas manufacturing tax deduction.
Goldman Sachs. The financial giant paid only 1.1 percent of its income in taxes in 2008, though it recorded $2.3 billion in profits. It also received nearly $800 billion from the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department.
Citigroup. The financial conglomerate made over $4 billion in profits in 2010, but paid no federal income taxes. It received a $2.5 trillion “bailout” from the Federal Reserve and Treasury.
ConocoPhillips. The oil conglomerate garnered $16 billion in profits from 2007 through 2009, paid no taxes, and received $451 million in tax breaks through the oil and gas manufacturing deduction.
Carnival Cruise Lines. This entertainment giant made over $11 billion in profits between 2006 and 2011, but paid only 1.1 percent of its income in taxes during that period.
In a press release calling for “shared sacrifice,” Sanders writes: “While hard working Americans fill out their income tax returns this tax season, General Electric and other giant profitable corporations are avoiding US taxes altogether.… [T]he wealthiest Americans and most profitable corporations must do their share to help bring down our record-breaking deficit.” Sanders writes that “it is grossly unfair for Congressional Republicans to propose major cuts to Head Start, Pell Grants, the Social Security Administration, nutrition grants for pregnant low-income women, and the Environmental Protection Agency while ignoring the reality that some of the most profitable corporations pay nothing or almost nothing in federal income taxes.” Sanders calls for closing corporate tax loopholes and eliminating the deductions for oil and gas companies. He is also introducing legislation that would impose a 5.4 percent surtax on millionaires that would garner as much as $50 billion a year in tax revenues. Sanders says: “We have a deficit problem. It has to be addressed, but it cannot be addressed on the backs of the sick, the elderly, the poor, young people, the most vulnerable in this country. The wealthiest people and the largest corporations in this country have got to contribute. We’ve got to talk about shared sacrifice.” (Sweet 3/27/2011)
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