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Thursday, April 8, 2010

Regrets of Ex-Citigroup Execs don't Satisfy Federal Panel

LA Times

Apologies from Chuck Prince and Robert Rubin -- but no acceptance of blame -- for the near-collapse of the giant firm that led to a $45-billion bailout leaves fiscal crisis panel members frustrated.


Two former top executives of Citigroup Inc. on Thursday publicly apologized for the financial crisis and the near collapse of the giant firm that required a taxpayer bailout of $45 billion, but took heat from a federal panel investigating the crisis for not accepting blame for the company's dramatic fall.

"Let me start by saying I'm sorry. I'm sorry the financial crisis has had such a devastating impact on our country," former chief executive Chuck Prince told the federal commission investigating the causes of the financial crisis. "I'm sorry that our management team, starting with me, like so many others, did not see the unprecedented market collapse that lay before us."

Prince's mea culpa came on the second of three days of hearings by the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission into the subprime mortgage meltdown. He was followed by former Citi board chairman, Robert Rubin, who expressed regret for the failure of himself and others to see the approaching financial turmoil.

"Almost all of us in the financial system, including financial firms, regulators, rating agencies, analysts and commentators, missed the powerful combination of forces at work and the serious possibility of a massive crisis," said Rubin, who served as Treasury secretary under President Clinton. "We all bear responsibility for not recognizing this, and I deeply regret that."

But Prince and Rubin did not take direct responsibility for leading the company into a financial morass. They said they were not aware until the fall of 2007 of the high risks of the mortgage-backed assets the company was holding and largely blamed the company's problems on a confluence of outside market forces.

Democrats and Republicans on the panel ripped the two executives for diverting blame.

"At the end of the day, the two of you in charge of the organization did not seem to have a grip on what was happening," said commission Chairman Phil Angelides, a Democratic appointee.

"I'm not so sure apologies are as important as assessment of responsibility. . . . Instead of asking what did you know and when did you know it, I should be asking what didn't you know and why didn't you know it," he said.

The panel's vice chairman, Bill Thomas, a Republican appointee, slammed Prince and Rubin for not returning any of the tens of millions of dollars in compensation they received before Citigroup's fall. He said a "simple apology" isn't enough "no matter how often you feel really really sad."

Citigroup has been the most contrite of the firms that received a major bailout, and because of the large amount of assistance it received, has been a major focus of lawmakers and the panel investigating the crisis.

Last month, Citi's current chief executive, Vikram Pandit, publicly thanked taxpayers for the $45 billion in federal money that helped save the company in late 2008. The bailout also included a government guarantee of $102 billion for a large portion of Citi's assets. That guarantee has since been removed. Citi in December repaid $20 billion of the bailout. The remaining money was converted into a $27-billion government ownership stake

The Treasury Department said last week it intends to cash in those shares, which could result in an $8-billion profit for the government.

Prince said risk assessments by Citigroup on about $40 billion of highly rated securities based on subprime mortgages turned out to be "dramatically wrong." But he said he could not fault company employees for acquiring those assets because of their AAA-plus credit ratings.

"Having $40 billion of AAA-plus-rated paper on the balance sheet of a $2-trillion company would typically not raise a concern," Prince said. But the value of those assets began deteriorating amid the collapse of the housing market. Prince resigned in Nov. 4, 2007, after Citigroup announced $8 billion to $11 billion in write-downs for those investments, which ultimately cost the company $30 billion.

Although Prince and Rubin said they were not alone among financial executives to miss signs of the coming crisis, commission member Byron Georgiou, a Democratic appointee, said they and others were "hallucinatory" given the risks being taken with subprime mortgages.

"When you look at the fundamentals, it belies logic," to say the crisis was impossible to foresee, he said.

The financial crisis inquiry panel is focusing much of their three days of hearings on Citi's problems. On Wednesday, Richard Bowen, the former senior vice president and business chief underwriter of CitiMortgage Inc., testified that he began warning company officials in 2006 about the risks being taken with securities backed by subprime mortgages. He finally sent an e-mail on Nov. 3, 2007, to Rubin and other top officials "resulting in significant but possibly unrecognized financial losses existing" within Citigroup.

Rubin said Thursday he referred the e-mail to the appropriate company officials and "I do know factually that was acted on promptly." Angelides asked Rubin to submit details on who acted on it and how.