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Parsing Parsons' Citigroup Legacy

March 5, 2012: 3:30 PM ET

Citigroup

Parsons is getting slaps on the back for his tenure at Citigroup, but his record at the bank is mixed at best.

FORTUNE -- On Friday, Citigroup (C) said that its chairman Richard Parsons is stepping down. The departure has mostly been greeted with a job well done response. The New York Times headline was "With Citigroup Stabilized, Parsons Decides to Retire." The Wall Street Journal said Parsons had strengthened CEO Vikram Pandit's position at the firm, reinforcing the opinion that things had generally gone well under Parsons watch. Parsons himself said, "Given the strong position that Citi is in today, I have concluded that the time has come for me to take my leave." But Parsons' legacy at the bank is more complicated than that. Below are some ways to parse Parsons' tenure:

  • Stock price: Adjusted for a 10-for-1 split, which in itself was probably a good PR move - having Citigroup's stock trade for less than a Big Mac was not great for employees or customer acquisition - Citigroup's stock has risen nearly 57% since Parsons took over as chairman on February 23, 2009. The only problem is the Standard & Poors index in the same time was up even more - nearly 80% in roughly the same time. And over the past 12 months the stock is down roughly 25%. Verdict: Thumbs down Parson.
  • Earnings: Last year, Citigroup made over $11 billion. But those earnings included nearly $2 billion the bank made on so-called credit value adjustments, which are only profits on paper. And in the fourth quarter it got a boost by putting away $2.25 billion less for loan losses - about double the drop in actual loan loses. What's more, earnings appeared to be slowing toward the end of the year. Nevertheless, the year before Parsons took over Citi lost $27.7 billion. So a big thumbs up for Parsons on that one.
  • Government Dole: There's no Goldman Sachs' "We didn't need the bailout" argument for Citigroup. The bank was most definitely going down without Uncle Sam's support in late 2008 and 2009. The bank paid back the last of the $45 billion it took from the government in late 2011, and Parsons definitely deserves some of the credit for helping the firm push through asset sales that got it off the government's dole, as well as negotiating the terms of its exit from government assistance. So credit Parsons with getting the bank back on its own two feet, mostly. Some say that Citi and other large banks get a better rating than they should from Standard & Poors and others because they are deemed Too Big To Fail. What's more, Citi had to dilute its shares in order to cash out the government as fast as it did. Still, another thumbs up for Parsons.
  • Culture: Perhaps the biggest problem at Citi was its total lack of regard for risk or, at some level, the law. Remember Chuck Prince's famous dancing quote. So turning around the culture of profits first prudence second was perhaps Parsons greatest challenge. And apparently, on that front Parsons' successor Michael O'Neil still has a lot of work to do. A few weeks ago, Citigroup had to pay $158 million to settle a suit that it was pushing faulty loans onto a government insurance program. Worse, Citi's loan officers were doing it as recently as July 2011. The dangers of lax lending should have been drilled into the heads of every employee of Citigroup years ago. Pathetic. So as a culture changer, Parsons not only gets a thumbs down, but a finger wag as well.
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About This Author
Stephen Gandel
Stephen Gandel

Stephen Gandel has covered Wall Street and investing for over 15 years. He joins Fortune from sister publication TIME, where he was a senior business writer and lead blogger for The Curious Capitalist. He has also held positions at Money and Crain's New York Business. Stephen is a four-time winner of the Henry R. Luce Award. His work has also been recognized by the National Association of Real Estate Editors, the New York State Society of CPA and the Association of Area Business Publications. He is a graduate of Washington University, and lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two children.

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