Better days are on the horizon, Citicorp's restless shareholders are told

April 22, 1992|By Thomas Easton | Thomas Easton,New York Bureau

NEW YORK -- For big, brash companies like Citicorp, annual meetings were once a time for perfunctory, if not friendly, gatherings on Park Avenue, with the few disconcerting comments drowned out by the drone of accountants reading shareholder approvals of proxy resolutions.

Yesterday, Citicorp's annual meeting retained its upper-crust locale, but added a rowdy upper-deck feel as shareholders -- vexed by the company's half-billion dollar loss last year and the resulting elimination of a dividend paid since 1813 -- told Chief Executive John Reed to take a pay cut, go home or both.

"Thank you," he responded sarcastically to a suggestion that he trim his $1.2 million annual compensation. Answering more soberly questions about his ability to revive the bank, he promised: "This management is grimly determined to get the job done in 1992."

"If we can't," he added later with a less distinct deadline, "you can be sure there will be new management."

By the end of the year, Mr. Reed said, Citicorp should be earning $1 billion to $2 billion annually, even if the U.S. economy is experiencing negligible growth. Credit trends generally have stabilized, and previous trouble spots such as Third World debt and loans for highly leveraged transactions are no longer a problem.

Real estate remains troubled, but even in that area, Mr. Reed told shareholders, some money is coming back into the market for buildings.

If more money is available, Citicorp will consider bundling its portfolio of loans and separating them from the bank in an equity offering.

Yesterday's meeting came as outside observers were beginning take a more optimistic view of the huge banking company.

Monday, Salomon Brothers issued a buy recommendation on its shares, which have more than doubled in price from last year's extremely depressed level. But skepticism remains.

Eight years ago, when Mr. Reed assumed leadership of Citicorp, he was the Wunderkind of global banking -- 45 years old and considered a business visionary.

But his individual luster has dimmed.

"We certainly are going through difficult times," he said. "The board is more than deeply engaged."

Five quarters into a two-year turnaround effort, his bank's prognosis is mixed.

Staffing has been reduced about 10 percent, to 85,000, and costs have become an obsession.

Mr. Reed noted that he had even asked why the lights remained on overnight at the bank's processing center in Queens. (Answer: It's the cleaning people).

But positive results have yet to emerge. Shortly before the meeting yesterday, Citicorp reported first-quarter earnings of $183 million, including a special $218 million after-tax gain from corporate divestitures of non-core operations and investments. Even with the one-time gain, Citicorp still earned a paltry 0.33 percent return on assets and a 7.2 percent return on equity.

"The numbers tell you there is still an operating loss," noted Charles Peabody, a securities analyst at East Shore Partners in New Jersey.

Still, buried beneath the gloomy results were other figures underscoring the vast potential of the bank, if, Mr. Peabody said, it can bury its credit problems.

Using an unusual accounting approach said to be favored by Mr. Reed, the bank disclosed results for operations based on continuing costs and expenses stripped of credit losses and taxes. That produced what Citicorp calls an "operating margin" of $1.696 billion, or $7 billion at an annual rate.

"That gives us a lot of sins to pay for and still bring money down to the stockholder," Chief Financial Officer Thomas Jones said.

Given solid indications of sustainable profits of more than $1 billion a year and a substantial contribution of earnings to equity, Mr. Reed said, the board may respond to its most vocal critics and restore its quarterly payout the stockholders.

"I own 500,000 shares of the stock. I miss the dividend horribly," Mr. Reed said.

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