NEW YORK – Even if the government took a large common equity stake in Citigroup Inc, worries would likely persist about the bank's ability to absorb soaring losses in a deepening recession.
The third-largest US bank by assets is in talks with federal regulators on a plan for the government to increase its stake, a person familiar with the matter said. Converting $45 billion of preferred stock, which the government obtained last fall, to common stock is one of many options, the person said.
An agreement could be announced Monday or Tuesday, CNBC television said.
Citigroup shares rose on Monday after the White House repeated that President Barack Obama believes keeping banks in private hands is "the best way to go.
US bank regulators, meanwhile, said they stood ready to provide more capital to the sector and keep "systemically important financial institutions" viable.
But investors remained worried that losses from credit cards, emerging markets, trading and toxic assets could overwhelm Citigroup Chief Executive Vikram Pandit's efforts to restore the bank's fiscal footing. Analysts do not expect the New York-based bank to be profitable in 2009 or 2010.
Converting preferred shares to common equity "helps their capital ratios but it doesn't help their problem assets," said Walter Todd, portfolio manager at Greenwood Capital Associates LLC in Greenwood, South Carolina. "If Citi were out of the woods, the stock would not be at $2."
The government plans on Wednesday to subject banks with more than $100 billion of assets to "stress tests" to decide which need more capital. Citigroup ended 2008 with $1.95 trillion of assets.
Citigroup shares closed up 9.7 percent at $2.14. They earlier traded as high as $2.48, but gave up some gains as broader indexes fell.
Citing people familiar with the situation, The Wall Street Journal said Citigroup was in talks for the government to convert much of its preferred shares to as much as a 40 percent common equity stake, though bank executives hope to limit the stake to about 25 percent.
"It can be taken as a commitment that some banks are too big to fail and the economic consequences too bad to contemplate," said Tony Morriss, senior markets strategist at ANZ Investment Bank, in Sydney.
Washington got the Citigroup preferred shares, which equate to a 7.8 percent stake, when it bailed out the bank last fall and agreed to share in losses on $301 billion of toxic assets.
"The government doesn't want to do this," said Art Hogan, chief market analyst at Jefferies & Co in Boston. "This is government looking into Citigroup, saying what is the best way to keep the banks alive, not the stocks alive. That's the important part."
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's bank stabilization plan allows lenders to apply to convert preferred shares into convertible preferred shares and later into common equity, a spokesman said.
Governments worldwide are moving to prop up ailing financial companies, such as Britain having taken a 70 percent stake in Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc.
In September the US government took a nearly 80 percent stake in American International Group Inc. The insurer is in talks with the government on obtaining new funds, perhaps involving a debt-for-equity swap, and could post a nearly $60 billion loss tied to writedowns, CNBC said.
New government assistance to Citigroup could fuel speculation that Bank of America Corp and other lenders might need similar help. If that happened, shares of other lenders could fall, including relatively healthy ones.
"Nationalization is a trap that the US government should avoid," Fox-Pitt Kelton analyst David Trone wrote. "If Citi is nationalized, all bank stocks are likely to get crushed in fear."
Bank of America shares ended 3.2 percent higher at $3.91, JPMorgan Chase & Co fell 2 percent to $19.51, and Wells Fargo & Co closed up 1.1 percent to $11.03.
Citigroup declined to comment on talks with the government, but in an email said its capital base is very strong, despite $28.5 billion of losses in the last five quarters.
"Even if shareholders get diluted, as long as the bank isn't nationalized there could be tremendous upside," said Ralph Cole, a portfolio manager at Ferguson Wellman Capital Management in Portland, Oregon.
Shoring up capital
Pandit has tried to add stability by dividing the bank in two, creating Citicorp for businesses the bank wants to keep, and Citi Holdings for businesses and assets it hopes to shed.
Nevertheless, Citigroup and many large rivals come up short in their ratios of tangible common equity to tangible assets.
Tangible common equity measures how much common equity a bank has to cushion itself in tough times, when intangible assets like goodwill may have to be written down.
If the government converted $45 billion of preferred shares into common stock, Citigroup's ratio would rise to about 3.9 percent from 1.5 percent. There is no consensus on what ratios banks need, but many analysts prefer 5 percent or more.
Citigroup began raising capital aggressively in late 2007, including from Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, Kuwait Investment Authority and Singapore Investment Corp.
Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the bank's largest individual shareholder, also boosted his stake.
Singapore declined to comment. The others were not immediately available for comment.
Converting Citigroup preferred shares would add pressure on Bank of America, which also received $45 billion from the government and a loss-sharing pact on $118 billion of assets. Many came from the former Merrill Lynch & Co.
Bank of America spokesman Robert Stickler said the largest US bank is not in, and does not expect to enter, talks about new capital or converting preferred stock to common stock.
"We are in very healthy shape, we have strong capital, we have the strongest liquidity in the industry, we are profitable and we are lending across business lines," he said.