Citigroup Inc.'s deal to buy Wachovia Corp.'s banking operation with federal aid catapults the New York money-center company into the Big Three of retail branch banking and, perhaps more important, gives its balance sheet the ringing endorsement of regulators as the punishing credit crisis deepens.

"In business, there are many high-return opportunities. Many of the high-return opportunities also come with high risk. There are very few that are high-return with contained or manageable risk. This is one of those very few," Vikram Pandit, Citi's chief executive officer, said on a conference call with analysts Monday. And despite agreeing to absorb billions of dollars of Wachovia's souring mortgage-related debt, analysts said Citi also won a race against time.

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