Citigroup shoots itself in the foot

Citigroup is the largest banking and financial services group in the world, an organisation so huge that it is substantially bigger and richer than most of its customers and many of the countries in which it operates. This is a naturally difficult relationship – no customer, even on a domestic level, likes the idea that their bank manager can do everything bigger, faster and better.

With ego-driven executives and prickly governments it is potentially much worse. However, the board seems alive to these risks and is anxious to reassure. Its annual report says, with the Americans’ characteristic absence of irony, that ‘we aspire to be known as a company with the highest standards of moral and ethical conduct – working to earn client trust day in and day out’.

It then fleshes this out under the byline of its CEO and president: ‘Because of our size and scope and because of the benefits of our position of business leadership we are held to the highest standard. We accept this responsibility.’

It’s interesting how all those fine words, and presumably a great deal of real work behind them, were undone in two minutes last week. That was all the time it took for Citigroup to dump more than £7bn of European government bonds and then buy half of them back at substantially lower prices.

When noble sentiments met traders’ greed, the greed won hands down. We already know that rogue traders such as Nick Leeson can sink a bank with their illegal acts. What the Citigroup affair shows is that a non-rogue trader, just doing what he is paid to do perfectly legally, can cause almost as much damage when his actions are at odds with the bank’s carefully cultivated image of itself.

It could take the group years to recover and cost it millions because its reputation is now comprehensively shredded. Even as we speak, it must be searching for a scapegoat.

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