WASHINGTON — Citigroup isn't the poster-child for "too big to fail" anymore, Chief Executive Michael Corbat claimed Wednesday, arguing the bank had scaled back and learned from its mistakes leading up to the financial crisis.
In an appearance before the Economics Club here, Corbat acknowledged that one of his biggest challenges is "dealing with a bit of the legacy and trying to tell the story of where we are today as a company and why that is different from our past."
Of all the big banks, Citigroup is arguably viewed the most skeptically by many policymakers given that it almost certainly would have collapsed without government help in 2008 and 2009. But Corbat, who took the reins in 2012, insisted the bank has undergone significant changes since then, including downsizing by shedding $700 billion in noncore assets and 60 noncore businesses.
"As a company, we've taken responsibility for our actions — and it was right and necessary for us to do so," Corbat said. "Which means that today, we can honestly describe ourselves in four words: simpler, smaller, safer and stronger… We no longer have insurance businesses, hedge funds, private equity funds and we aren't an asset manager or retail brokerage."
While noting Citi's still large size, he said it is "appropriately scaled" to meet customer needs. "We're large for defined and specific reasons," he said.
But he acknowledged it remains a big target, particularly with progressive lawmakers like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who want to break up the largest institutions.
"In this environment, bankers are easy to pick on," he said. "The louder critics of the banking industry do not aim their arguments at banking itself, but rather at the so-called 'big bank.'"
Corbat argued that the Dodd-Frank Act effectively ended "too big to fail," by forcing the largest institutions to submit living wills that detail how they could be broken up in the event of a crisis. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and Federal Reserve Board rejected the first round of plans submitted by the most complex institutions, but bankers are hoping the new proposals submitted in July of this year will pass muster.
"Dodd-Frank legislation is important legislation because what it is trying to end is this concept of 'too big to fail,' Corbat said. "So one thing that is a challenge for large banks is proving we can resolve ourselves."
The company has also left the subprime business completely, including selling its subprime lending affiliate OneMain, which Corbat said was a "terrific" business. (The sale of OneMain to Springleaf Financial Services is currently being held up by regulators.)
"Subprime gets this nasty moniker to it" Corbat said. "Subprime is not payday lending. Subprime is providing credit to those who otherwise would have a very hard time getting credit."
But he warned that because of added regulatory requirements, including new accounting standards and stress testing requirements, consumers may find it difficult to obtain credit.
The stress tests are a bit of a sore point for Citi. The Fed rejected its capital plan in 2014 following a stress test that the agency determined indicated Citi would not have enough capital. It passed in 2015, and Corbat said he was "confident" it would pass the 2016 tests, as Citi has a capital ratio near 12% and "highly liquid assets approaching $400 billion."
"We as an industry, we as an institution, clearly have to make sure that we position our institutions in a way that are ahead of" the Fed's stress tests, he said.
As for the presidential race, Corbat said a big bank tax favored by Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders would be counterproductive.
"If we are taxed, sure we will absorb what we can of that, but… to stay in business we are going to have to cover our cost of equity and that means some portion of that tax will have to be passed on to people who borrow, people who transact and we absolutely don't want to do that," Corbat said.