NEW YORK — It's been nine months since Mike Corbat was handed the reins of Citigroup and tasked with turning around the struggling banking giant. On Monday, the bank announced second-quarter results that beat Wall Street expectations, earning him praise from analysts who said he is steering the bank in the right direction.
Strong results from investment banking helped Citi's April-to-June results, and the bank also benefited from setting aside less money for potential bad loans. Profit shot up 26 percent, after excluding an accounting gain, and revenue rose 8 percent.
That isn't to say that Corbat's path is without roadblocks. On calls with analysts and reporters, Corbat and his chief financial officer, John Gerspach, were peppered with questions about a number of potential challenges. Among them: Proposed regulations that could require big banks to hold more capital, rising interest rates that could dampen demand for mortgages and a slowdown in growth in emerging-market countries, on which Citigroup is heavily reliant.
Still, investors liked what they saw and heard, and sent the shares up nearly 2 percent.
Longtime banking analyst Nancy Bush called Citi's call with analysts "the most straightforward and clear in my experience."
"There were times when I listened to their earnings call (in the past) and it was just unintelligible. I couldn't tell where they were going, what they were doing, and neither did they, apparently," Bush said. "Isn't it amazing what having a real banker as CEO can do?"
Corbat became CEO in October, after Vikram Pandit's surprise resignation. The bank's board was reportedly unhappy with Pandit's failure to turn around the bank's stock price and his sometimes-strained relationship with regulators. Pandit, a former hedge fund manager, had been CEO for nearly five years. Before him was Chuck Prince, who was ousted after making disastrous bets on subprime mortgages.
Board members picked Corbat to do what Pandit had failed to accomplish. At the time, some analysts questioned whether someone like Corbat, who had been at Citi or a predecessor company his entire professional career, could bring the change that the bank needed. Corbat, a former Harvard football player who is now 53, was running Citi's operations in Europe, the Middle East and Africa when he was tapped as CEO. Before that he was in charge of Citi Holdings, a portfolio where the bank shuttled troubled units after the financial crisis.
Since Corbat took over, Citi's stock has jumped nearly 42 percent.
In some ways, Corbat's approach is not so different from Pandit's, and neither is the regulatory environment or the economy he has to navigate. Like Corbat, Pandit too tried to slim down Citigroup Inc., wanting to make it a smaller and simpler bank less likely to draw extra scrutiny from regulators. But analysts said Monday that Corbat has been more strategic and systematic in deciding where to cut.
Citi recently sold its consumer businesses in Turkey and Romania and has plans to sell the consumer business in Uruguay. It also continued to cut jobs. Head count fell to 253,000 from 261,000 a year ago.
Joshua Siegel, CEO at StoneCastle Partners, an asset management firm in New York, described previous cost cutting as "haphazard" — "a little here, a little there." The recent focus, he said, has been to shed entire business units.
"It's like if you go into a barbershop and they take a little off everywhere," said Siegel, who was formerly a vice president in Citi's global markets division. "Sure, the hair is shorter, but you haven't chosen a style."
Among the notable developments for Citi during the quarter:
— BY THE NUMBERS: Profit for the April-to-June period was $3.9 billion, excluding an accounting gain, up from $3.1 billion a year ago.
That amounted to $1.25 per share, beating the $1.18 per share predicted by analysts polled by FactSet.
Revenue was $20 billion, excluding the accounting gain, up from $18.6 billion a year ago. That beat the $19.8 billion predicted by analysts.
— A BIG WORLD: Emerging market countries have made up 43 percent of the bank's revenue so far this year, and 49 percent of pre-tax earnings. For the past two years, about two-thirds of the bank's revenue growth has come from emerging markets.
Corbat and Gerspach both noted that the economies of most emerging market countries are far outpacing those of the U.S. and Europe. Corbat added that the bank was being "very disciplined" about who to extend credit to, focusing on big multi-national companies or "high credit quality" consumers.
— CASH ON HAND: U.S. regulators last week proposed new rules that would require big U.S. banks to hold higher amounts of capital. Regulators say that would cushion the banks in bad times, though the banking industry has protested that the new requirements will constrain lending. Citi said that preliminary tests showed it was nearly in line with what regulators would expect if the proposed new requirements were in place. Asked by a reporter if the new requirements would put U.S. banks at a disadvantage to international peers, Gerspach replied that "we would all be better if there was a level playing field around the world."
— LEGAL RESERVES: The bank set aside $832 million for legal and related costs in the second quarter, up from $480 million a year ago. Bank leaders declined to say what the reserves might be for. Earlier this month, Citi agreed to pay $968 million to settle claims from mortgage lender Fannie Mae, which had pressed Citi and other big banks to take back the mortgages, since soured, that they sold to Fannie in the run-up to the financial crisis. The bank still has a number of suits related to the crisis outstanding.
— INVESTMENT VS. RETAIL: Earnings from investment banking soared 63 percent, boosted by strong stock and bond markets. U.S. stock markets were volatile in June as investors tried to parse how long the Federal Reserve would keep trying to prop up the economy, but many investors view volatility as a chance to make profits.
Earnings from consumer banking slipped 1 percent. Though the bank funded more mortgages compared with a year ago, it made less from servicing mortgages. Bank officials also acknowledged that rising interest rates could crimp homeowners' appetite for refinancing, which has driven mortgage results across the banking industry in recent quarters. Corbat said the bank was "taking steps to make sure the mortgage business is sized correctly."
— SHARE ACTION: Citi's stock rose $1, or 2 percent, to $51.81, after earlier spiking as high as $52.16. The stock has changed hands between $24.91 and $53.56 in the past 52 weeks.