Don't look now, but Citigroup one of the public's punching bags since its bailout during the financial meltdown is building momentum that it hopes to sustain into 2015.
Granted, Citi has to pass an all-important second round of stress tests on Wednesday, but company executives have hit the ground running this year thanks to their sale of the OneMain Financial subprime lending unit and other accomplishments that could fuel earnings growth.
Citi execs have urged investors to expect better days ahead, while trying to strike a balance between confidence and caution.
"There are some people that you will never please," Chief Financial OfficerJohn Gerspach said at an investor conference last week. "And there are some people that will take a hard line because they just want to make sure that you stay focused. I can tell you, we are focused."
Gerspach described Citigroup's downsizing phase as nearly over, taking time to review how much the bank has transformed since 2008.
"Broadly, we are where we want to be now," he said, regarding the streamlining process.
Since the crisis, Citigroup has sold more 60 businesses, reducing total assets by more than $700 billion. It has cut its leverage by 36%and cut the proportion of assets in its bad bank Citi Holdings unit to 5% of total assets from 32%.
In the U.S., Citi has narrowed its retail focus down to only six major cities. Globally, the bank has withdrawn from many corners of the world such as Japan and Turkey, and it is in the process of winding down operations in Central America where it is said to be selling its retail presence for $1.5 billion to Spain's Banco Popular.
"The time for ripping apart Citigroup is over," said Dick Bove, a bank analyst at Rafferty Capital. "The time for building on what it has is here."
Another bank analyst, Marty Mosby at Vining Sparks, expects Citi's stock to begin recovering this year from a discount held over it for some time. The stock has been trading at a discount of around 28% to book value, making it one of the cheapest among large banks.
Their comments reflect a consensus attitude among Citigroup's followers, many of whom expressed disappointment with the bank in 2014.
This year Citigroup is trying to cast itself in new light, and it is riding a wave of transactions that emphasize its retreat to basic business lines, driving up expectations.
"Losers are winners," said David Konrad at Macquarie Capital USA, citing Citi's failure of the Comprehensive Capital Analysis Review last year and subsequent improvements. The Federal Reserve is due to make the results of the 2015 CCAR public after markets close on Wednesday.
Since January the bank has benefited from two big transactions, which have generated a positive feeling among investors.
Springleaf Holdings, one of the largest consumer installment lenders in the country, agreed to buy Citigroup's OneMain Financial for $4.25 billion in a kind of spinoff that Citi has sought for several years. OneMain took up 10% of the bad bank's assets, which will fall to under $90 billion. The sale could generate $1 billion in pretax earnings for Citi.
Citi also announced a deal to take over Costco's cobranded cards from American Express in a partnership with Visa. The relationship could bring in revenues of $440 million a year, though the two events are not expected to have much of an impact on Citigroup's immediate earnings.
"What is important," Bove said, "is that the bank has completely restructured around its commercial business and cards business, primarily to upper-income consumers, and that is dramatically different."
Citigroup has transformed so much that it has drawn structural comparisons that date back to the days of Chief Executive Walter Wriston, who reigned at Citibank and Citicorp from 1967 to 1984, said Mike Mayo, a bank analyst at CLSA. It is much different than the financial-supermarket vision of Sandy Weill, who led the company from the late 1990s until the mid-2000s, he said.
"Now, more than ever, it looks more like the Citi built by Walter Wriston than anything created by Sandy Weill given disposals of consumer finance, insurance, retail brokerage and asset management," Mayo said. "The only major business line left from Weill's financial conglomerate empire is Salomon Brothers."
On Wednesday, Citigroup is expected by many analysts to receive a passing grade from the Federal Reserve to move ahead with its dividend plan to investors. The bank has spent significant effort to prevent another embarrassing rejection, having failed the annual hurdle twice over the last several years.
Citigroup CEO Michael Corbat faced other distractions last year that he is trying to move past. Citigroup spent nearly $10 billion to settle various legal matters last year, for example, and news of its CCAR failure came just after new revelations of fraud in the Mexico retail unit Banamex.
That issue is not fully resolved, and overhauls linked to the Mexican unit's troubles are not yet complete. After months of criticism following the scandals, Citigroup in February announced the retirement of Manuel Medina-Mora, head of Citigroup's consumer bank, who is slated to remain a nonexecutive chairman at Banamex when he steps down in June.
Citigroup did not name a successor, indicating the move was relatively sudden. Analysts have described the bank's handling of the matter as extremely delicate because of Medina-Mora's close personal and political ties to major business figures in Mexico. "If they had just gotten rid of him, all his buddies with billions in Banamex would have taken out their money and gone down the street," Bove said.
Two prominent individuals at the bank are believed to be on a short list to replace Medina-Mora. They include Stephen Bird, the CEO of Citi Asia Pacific, and Jane Fraser, who leads consumer and commercial banking in the U.S. as well as CitiMortgage.
A spokeswoman at Citigroup said there are no updates to share on Medina-Mora's successor at this time.
Analysts speculating on the horse race agreed the bank will ultimately want to choose someone who has international experience to match its global vision. Fraser has a high profile in the U.S., and she previously ran Citi's global private bank. Bird previously ran consumer banking in Asia and led the bank's consumer group in Japan. He also served as head of operations and technology for Citi in Latin America.