Mike Corbat, Citigroup Inc's new CEO, used his earnings debut to temper investor expectations for a turnaround at the company, delivering subdued profits and saying the bank still had a lot left to clean up.
Corbat, who took over as chief executive in October after the board abruptly ousted Vikram Pandit, promised investors the third-largest US bank will do a better job for shareholders during his tenure. But he warned that the environment remained challenging and it would take time.
Citigroup's fourth-quarter profit missed Wall Street's expectations by a wide margin, even though earnings were up from a year earlier as trading revenue rebounded. The bank's shares fell 2.9 percent for the day.
The bank took $2.32 billion of charges for layoffs and lawsuits in the fourth quarter. It also declined to release loan loss reserves just yet, a step which would have boosted profits.
Vikram Pandit was still in the job when the fourth quarter started, and some analysts said that by not releasing reserves Corbat may have understated financial results.
"It may be that the new CEO is holding back," said Gary Townsend, president of hedge fund Hill-Townsend Capital LLC. "There's no reason that the quarter when Pandit left and (Corbat) came in should be great."
Citigroup declined to comment on whether that was its strategy.
But analysts on the conference call repeatedly challenged Chief Financial Officer John Gerspach on why the company did not draw down more of its loan loss reserves, particularly those for mortgage assets, whose value is being lifted by the stronger housing market.
Gerspach said that while the housing and mortgage loss trends are good, the company had first wanted to make sure the U.S. government got past the so-called "fiscal cliff" threat to the economy and the damage that might have done to housing.
"What we would like to see now is how the U.S. deals with the ongoing debt ceiling debate," Gerspach said.
He eventually allowed that if the economy proves resilient to prolonged debates in Washington over government debt, "maybe that will give us the basis then to make some other decisions."
Such a cautious approach to the reserves may well set up Corbat to report higher earnings later in his tenure, according to RBC Capital Markets analyst Gerard Cassidy.
Corbat said Citi's various businesses were combating competitive and regulatory problems, as well as issues dating to the financial crisis that continue to plague the bank.
Citi shares rose in Corbat's