Citigroup's latest results may help calm the nerves of bankers rattled by visions of economic crises in distant lands.
The far-flung megabank surprised Wall Street Thursday with a strong quarterly profit of $4.2 billion, beating estimates and causing its shares to rise nearly 4.5% by late afternoon. Like its big-bank peers, Citi saw its revenue decline, but unexpectedly strong cost control more than made up for the slowdown.
And Citi's international businesses came through the quarter relatively unscathed, even in regions, like China and Brazil, that slowed sharply this summer — another piece of unexpected good news for Citi and other bankers fretting about the world economy. Citi typically gets more than half its revenue from abroad, which makes its results a good proxy for international risk to the banking industry.
It was not a blowout quarter for Citi's international businesses by any means — Latin America's revenue was flat if you take out an $180 million asset sale, and Asian revenue fell about 6% from a year earlier — but the results should reduce concerns about emerging-market risks, said Keefe, Bruyette & Woods analyst Brian Kleinhanzl.
"The general takeaway is that this imminent fear that emerging markets are collapsing might be overstated," he said. "They are likely to deteriorate, but the pace and magnitude could be much less than people anticipate when imagining an emerging markets sell-off."
Citi executives said that business has slowed internationally and would expect it to remain subdued through the end of the year, particularly in areas like asset management and equity issuance that are more sensitive to turmoil in the markets.
But while Chief Executive Michael Corbat emphasized that the bank is going through some choppy waters, he said the strong quarter shows the situation should not be too much to handle.
"We don't yet know the long-term impact of recent volatility on consumer and business sentiment, and in many large markets there are high degrees of political risk which have economic ramifications," he said. "I think that this quarter showed that we're well equipped to handle what the world throws our way."
The world threw plenty at Citi and other large banks in the third quarter. It began with frantic worries about a possible euro breakup and ended with a near-meltdown in China's stock market.
Citi's overall revenue, adjusted for currency and derivative transactions, declined 8% from the third quarter of 2014, to $18.5 billion. Some of the biggest revenue drops were in investment banking, which fell by 25%, and fixed-income trading, down 16%.
But operating expenses also fell 18%, to $10.7 billion, and Citi continued to whittle down Citi Holdings, its so-called bad bank created during the financial crisis, which even made a $47 million profit on the quarter.
Revenue from Citi's international consumer banking, adjusted for currency-exchange rates, rose 2% overall, to $3.6 billion. Average international loans were up 3%, card purchases up 5% and deposits up 4%.
Citi was also helped by the attempt its leadership has made to cut down the risk of its international businesses. In keeping with its efforts to become smaller and safer after the financial crisis, last year Citi said it would close its consumer banking businesses in a dozen countries following a series of scandals last year in its Mexican unit, Banamex.
Citi's efforts to cut risk are not finished, and it recently agreed to sell its consumer businesses in Hungary and the Czech Republic. Citi executives said Thursday the sales of its Japanese retail bank and the U.S. subprime business OneMain Financial were expected to close in the fourth quarter.
Reducing risk has no doubt helped, but credit quality has been remarkably strong in the remaining international businesses, said Marty Mosby, an analyst with Vining Sparks.
"While there are disruptions across the world, you're not seeing a lot of loan losses at all in Citi's portfolios," he said. "They've been able to derisk their business, and significant pressures are not emerging at this point."
Overall, Citi's nonconforming consumer loans fell to 2.01% of its consumer portfolio at Sept. 30, down 23 basis points from midyear. The sharpest improvement came in North America, but Latin America also improved by 18 basis points, to 4.42%, and Asia by one basis point, to 0.79%.
Citi added to its loan-loss reserve to cover weaknesses in the Brazil consumer loan book, but the danger is relatively small considering the bank's scale. The entire portfolio of Brazilian consumer loans is $3 billion, just 1% of global consumer loans, Chief Financial Officer John Gerspach said.
It remains to be seen whether the rest of the banking industry will encounter such mild credit problems in foreign markets, analysts say. Citi has been in many of these markets for decades, operating with well-established management teams, and it does most of its business with large, established corporate clients and very wealthy people.
Citi's problems over the past decade have come from a previous management groups' attempts to grow too quickly, not from weakness in its periphery, said Gerard Cassidy, an analyst at RBC Capital Markets.
"The challenges Citi has had historically have been centered in Park Avenue, not Sao Paolo, Hong Kong or Panama City," he said.
It is possible that newer entrants to some emerging markets, who ramped up their exposure much faster, may not fare as well, he said. But it is also possible that anxious news reports about emerging-market economies have stoked fears too high.
"There may be an exaggeration of how bad it is in these markets, in addition to Citi having strong feet on the ground," Cassidy said.