Citigroup – is it sleeping now (NYSE: C)

This is the sixth installment of my look at the Dow Jones Companies, the thirty finest American companies. Today we’ll be looking at Citigroup. This company is now trading somewhat in the doldrums due to the rather tricky credit crunch. Having already looked at JP Morgan, many banks are under pressure, underwater, could this be the right time to buy into the banking sector?

Citigroup (NYSE: C)

Citigroup is a worldwide financial service with 200 million accounts in more than one hundred countries. It provides a range of financial products to governments, consumers and corporations that includes investments, brokerage accounts, wealth management and consumer banking and credit. It merged with Travelers Group in April of 1998 and as of 2008 is one of the world’s largest banks (having dropped from first place just recently).

Early History

Citigroup began in 1812 as the City Bank of New York. As the company grew and absorbed other businesses and banking institutions, it diversified to include many different financial interests such as insurance companies and brokerage firms. Because of the diversity of its many branches, each balances out the other as financial cycles rise and fall.

Citigroup has historically been a very good investment due to this long-range planning for stability. However, the corporation has been involved in many questionable practices. In 2004, Citigroup disrupted the European bond market by selling billions in bonds and then buying them back cheaply when their trades forced the market to drop.

Would you tell your grandmother?

In 2005 the NASD levied more than $21 million in fines against Citigroup for violating mutual fund sales practices. In 2007, NASD again fined Citigroup more than $15 million for misleading retirees in seminars and not adequately disclosing risks to those investors. The banking institution was also heavily implicated in the Terra Securities scandal which negatively impacted the United States bond market. Just this year, in 2008, the attorney general of California disclosed that Citigroup was guilty of a computerized “sweep” that robbed its customers, mostly poor or recently deceased, and deposited their money in the bank’s general fund without notifying the victims of the robbery.

A Laggard, Really

Citigroup has underperformed for the past half decade, showing losses in nearly every quarter according to the Dow Jones Industrial Average index. Although the diversity of financial products and investments would seem to make Citigroup an excellent choice for a healthy portfolio, its questionable business practices and recent poor decisions should be cause for second thoughts. Whether or not business ethics matter to you as an investor, the recent spate of bank failures combined with Citigroup’s losses in the past few years indicate that a great deal of caution is advisable when considering Citigroup as an investment.

Caution is certainly the word: having grown its dividend steadily for years, the recent losses forced Citigroup to cut its dividend from 54 cents to 32 cents, this bank may warrant careful scrutiny if you should be interested in it. It currently falls at or near the bottom of the Dow Jones, and is of interest to Dogs of the Dow investors. But a look at the charts indicate that it has lost more than 60% of its stock value since the latter part of 2007. It is currently still loss making. Are you willing to take a punt? But then when there are still lots of other profit making banks out there, why would you?

Citibank 3 – HSBC 0: Not all banks are the same

I had been a customer of HSBC for a few years in HongKong, then in Taiwan when I transferred my account to Taipei. I thought “Great!” Finally a bank in Taiwan that understands international clients, a bank that has good service, a bank that excels in providing good products. Was I wrong? YES on 2 out of 3 counts.


Flashy Name: Lousy Service

Their service though competent in face to face transactions really failed on indirect communications: I left email and notes in the system that we were supposed to use – they went unanswered so long I forgot about the query; I had my phone banking closed down twice because I prefer to do online banking; but the online banking service was somewhat lacking – and the occasional service had to be performed through the phone, such as opening a Term Deposit.

I tried to set up my accounts to handle electronic transfers (and was promised that it would be easy and efficient). This would have included my broker in the states, my regular payments, etc., in fact, the service NEVER worked, and I gave up trying to get HSBC to fix it; these weren’t the only problems I had. I also had office closing times that were switched just after I opened my account.

Worse, every single time I went into the office, there was a supposedly ‘new’ account manager to handle things: I never saw the same person twice. To add insult to injury, I never got my regular statements mailed to my home, and it took ages before I realized that they had carelessly written down my address so statements weren’t being mailed: this was despite asking several times and having confirmed my address several times. Wow!

In the end I closed my account. I never managed to utilize their service because there were so many problems just setting up supposedly basic services. In fact, I had planned to put all my assets in their care. But when I saw how little care they took over their clients, I eventually backed off, and left things as they are. Push came to shove, when they closed my phone banking for the SECOND time.

Rich Ironies – Perhaps we’re not rich enough

Today, to cap it all, I went in to see if I could buy traveler’s checks in British pounds. Given that they had branches in the UK, I thought this would be okay. But no. Sorry, this service is only for ‘customers’. Of course, I didn’t bite my tongue when I ‘reminded’ them that I had already closed my account because of their silly service rules.

To be fair: when I was in the UK, getting money was relatively easy with HSBC, and I did buy T/Cs before through them, though I think I had to order them. Their online security was great, too (since I do banking a number of times each month, the regular hassle just outweighed the benefits). And they did direct me to a bank that could provide me with what I needed.

Christine and I were discussing the situation tonight, and she made me realize that my accounts were just too small for them to bother with. I didn’t use their credit card, and wouldn’t run up a debt, even if I did. We didn’t use their mortgage services as they wouldn’t lend to me – the loan principal was TOO small, they said – which is a pity for them because we later remortgaged through our current provider, and will undoubtedly use a mortgage again in the future.

But, I thought: isn’t that weird? A bank doesn’t want to provide me these services so they think I’m a bad customer. In truth, I would have had the whole lot: mortgage, credit card, car loan, investments, and much more. I would have been a great customer for them, too.

Pause to Reflect: Your best friends are always underappreciated

Later I happened to call my REAL bank, Citibank to move some cash around, tidy up some deposits and get some cash for the trip to the UK next week. And they were so helpful and polite. I have never had problems with services being canceled, their interest rates tended to be better than HSBC, and whenever I’ve been to the branch, things were quickly sorted out. I’ll be testing their service in the UK to compare it with HSBC.

Many foreigners in Taiwan have bad experiences with the local banks, getting stuff done. Truthfully, I have never had any of the similar frustrations that I’ve had with HSBC with ANY of the local banks I have dealt with. Today, I went to Land Bank, one of the stodgiest of banks in Taiwan. I was served politely, accurately and quickly both times I did a transaction. It’s true: some of the local banks don’t have comfy seats, polite manners, but they usually get stuff done – with one big exception TaiHsin Bank. But then I didn’t choose to open an account there: I had to because of work. As soon as I quit, I closed it down.

There are problems with local banks, though: sometimes they have their own bureaucracy that’s hard to get through, if you are a foreigner; sometimes they charge more on international wires; they don’t always have a lot of foreign currency on hand; ATMs don’t always accept cards, and stuff. But I haven’t experienced as much frustration with any of the local banks as with HSBC.

What goes around comes around

HSBC has been in Taiwan for more than 20 years, and its focus on developing Wealth Management Services is undoubtedly a smart move. Overseas, HSBC is quite a reputable bank, and by most accounts, well worth dealing with. Unfortunately, in Taiwan, it’s getting the reputation for being a snob’s bank. That would be okay, if it was backed up by stellar service. In reality, service would barely rate 2 stars out of five. Alienating currently lower-income, lower net worth individuals now in a country with a fast-moving business environment, rising incomes, sharply rising wealth, really isn’t a smart move.

Disclaimer: This post is written by a former customer of HSBC in Taiwan and HongKong. I do not currently own shares or bonds in this company. I have no investments or any relation with this company other than outlined in this post.

Tax time: Review your Income Sources…

It’s nearly tax time here, and as usual all the banks and financial organizations that you do business with have sent out their paperwork. So now is a good time to review those sources of income.

I received a tax paper from HSBC bank just last week. I took a quick gander at the paper only to discover that the interest that HSBC paid me for last year amounted to just NT$280 for NT$150,000+ deposits (and no, it wasn’t a checking account). That amounts to about 0.2% pa. How little is that? That’s like 3 Americanos at Starbucks.

So I decided to close that account and move that money into an account earning more than 10X that. It’s wise from time to time to check your savings accounts and make sure of the interest rate on each particular account. Banks are well known, especially in the UK and US, for having teaser rates that go down quickly, and some accounts become quite uncompetitive in triple time. So you have to keep checking online or in the newspapers about your bank account’s interest rate, to make sure you’re not losing out. There’s no sense in letting banks make free money off your investments.

Both Citibank and HSBC here offer higher rates than 0.2% on demand deposits, but both of these banks have minimum requirements for deposit amounts. I noted though on closer inspection that in Taiwan, the HSBC minimums were lower than Citibank, but that the Citibank interest rates were much more competitive than HSBC. In fact, HSBC has been running a promotion for their HSBC Direct service that promises to pay much higher interest rates than other banks. And it’s true, the deposit rate is much higher, but when compared to Citibank’s rates, it is about 25% less than you could get with more careful saving.

So it pays to shop around for your banking; it also pays to keep an eye on your savings, too; and don’t be attracted by teaser rates.