By Pam Martens and Russ Martens: April 3, 2017
Citigroup was back in the news again last Tuesday when the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) reported that its banking unit, Citibank, was among the three banks with the highest average monthly complaints filed against it alleging credit card abuses. (The other two banks were Capital One and JPMorgan Chase.)
This is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Citigroup and its haloed Citibank.
On May 20, 2015, Citigroup’s banking division pleaded guilty to a criminal felony charge for foreign currency rigging following a decade of serial charges against the global behemoth. (See rap sheet below.) Instead of putting this incorrigible recidivist out of business, the Federal government has continued to allow its shady proclivities to be perpetuated against an unsuspecting public.
The U.S. central bank, the Federal Reserve, which incompetently oversees Citigroup as it takes on massive derivative risk and continues to fleece the public, saw fit to secretly funnel $2 trillion of loans into Citigroup’s collapsing carcass from 2007 to at least 2010 at almost zero interest rates. During that period, Citigroup was allowed to continue to charge double-digit interest rates on its credit cards and put struggling homeowners out on the street from its tricked-up mortgages. The $2 trillion in secret loans came on top of the publicly announced $45 billion in equity infusions and more than $300 billion in asset guarantees by the Federal government to keep this ethically-challenged institution alive.
Why would the Federal government want to bail out such a recidivist lawbreaker instead of simply putting it out of business? Citigroup is one of those too-big-to-fail, too-big-to-jail and too-interconnected-to-fathom financial goblins that continue to threaten the U.S. financial landscape today.
The CFPB’s report last week brought to mind a Harper’s article by Andrew Cockburn in April 2015. Cockburn had traced the history of how Sandy Weill had parlayed Commercial Credit through a series of mergers that, thanks to the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act by President Clinton & Company in 1999, had culminated in the too-big-to-fail Citigroup.
With the blessing of its regulators, including the Federal Reserve, Citigroup was allowed to replicate the precise banking model which had brought on the 1929 crash and Great Depression: it was allowed to hold savings deposits while making wild speculations on Wall Street and selling bogus stocks to the hapless public.
While today Bill Dudley, President of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, incessantly fingers his worry beads and ponders what it will take to change the jaded culture of Wall Street mega banks, Cockburn quickly drilled down to the problem: Citigroup grew out of a loan sharking operation that permeates its culture.
“Weill had recently been eased out from Shearson Lehman/American Express [in 1985], a financial conglomerate he had helped to build. Eager to get back in the game, he bought a Baltimore firm called Commercial Credit. In the view of Weill and his protégé, Jamie Dimon [now CEO at JPMorgan Chase], their new acquisition was in the beneficent business of supplying ‘consumer finance’ to ‘Main Street America.’ Their office receptionist, Alison Falls, thought otherwise. Overhearing their conversation at work one day, she called out, ‘Hey, guys, this is the loan-sharking business. Consumer finance is just a nice way to describe it.’
“Falls had it right. Commercial Credit made loans to poor people at predatory interest rates. Strapped to pay off their loans, borrowers were encouraged to refinance, with added fees each time. Gail Kubiniec, who was then an assistant sales manager at the company’s branch office in Tonawanda, New York, remembers that the basic aim was to lend money to ‘people uneducated about credit. You could take a five-hundred-dollar loan and pack it with extra items like life insurance—that was very lucrative. Then you could roll it over with more extra items, then reroll the new loan, and the borrower would go on paying and paying and paying.’ ”
Cockburn includes an excerpt from an affidavit that Kubiniec had filed with the Federal Trade Commission in 2001 about the practices of Commercial Credit, which had changed its name to CitiFinancial:
“I and other employees would often determine how much insurance could be sold to a borrower based on the borrower’s occupation, race, age, and education level. If someone appeared uneducated, inarticulate, was a minority, or was particularly old or young, I would try to include all the coverages CitiFinancial offered. The more gullible the consumer appeared, the more coverages I would try to include in the loan.”
Wall Street On Parade took a look at the CFPB’s consumer complaint database to peruse the tens of thousands of complaints that have been filed against Citigroup and its banking unit, Citibank, since the CFPB began operations in 2011. The complaints range from debt collection practices to credit card abuses to student loan gouging to mortgage and foreclosure abuse.
Given the serial charges and settlements by Citigroup as listed below, one has to seriously wonder if fraud has not only become a business model at Wall Street banks (as Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont has stated) but an accepted business model by Wall Street’s regulators and the U.S. Justice Department.
The following is just a sampling of charges brought against Citigroup and/or its various units since December 2008:
December 11, 2008: SEC forces Citigroup and UBS to buy back $30 billion in auction rate securities that were improperly sold to investors through misleading information.
February 11, 2009: Citigroup agrees to settle lawsuit brought by WorldCom investors for $2.65 billion.
July 29, 2010: SEC settles with Citigroup for $75 million over its misleading statements to investors that it had reduced its exposure to subprime mortgages to $13 billion when in fact the exposure was over $50 billion.
October 19, 2011: SEC agrees to settle with Citigroup for $285 million over claims it misled investors in a $1 billion financial product. Citigroup had selected approximately half the assets and was betting they would decline in value.
February 9, 2012: Citigroup agrees to pay $2.2 billion as its portion of the nationwide settlement of bank foreclosure fraud.
August 29, 2012: Citigroup agrees to settle a class action lawsuit for $590 million over claims it withheld from shareholders’ knowledge that it had far greater exposure to subprime debt than it was reporting.
July 1, 2013: Citigroup agrees to pay Fannie Mae $968 million for selling it toxic mortgage loans.
September 25, 2013: Citigroup agrees to pay Freddie Mac $395 million to settle claims it sold it toxic mortgages.
December 4, 2013: Citigroup admits to participating in the Yen Libor financial derivatives cartel to the European Commission and accepts a fine of $95 million.
July 14, 2014: The U.S. Department of Justice announces a $7 billion settlement with Citigroup for selling toxic mortgages to investors. Attorney General Eric Holder called the bank’s conduct “egregious,” adding, “As a result of their assurances that toxic financial products were sound, Citigroup was able to expand its market share and increase profits.”
November 2014: Citigroup pays more than $1 billion to settle civil allegations with regulators that it manipulated foreign currency markets. Other global banks settled at the same time.
May 20, 2015: Citicorp, a unit of Citigroup becomes an admitted felon by pleading guilty to a felony charge in the matter of rigging foreign currency trading, paying a fine of $925 million to the Justice Department and $342 million to the Federal Reserve for a total of $1.267 billion. The prior November it paid U.S. and U.K. regulators an additional $1.02 billion.
May 25, 2016: Citigroup agrees to pay $425 million to resolve claims brought by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission that it had rigged interest-rate benchmarks, including ISDAfix, from 2007 to 2012.
July 12, 2016: The Securities and Exchange Commission fined Citigroup Global Markets Inc. $7 million for failure to provide accurate trading records over a period of 15 years. According to the SEC: “CGMI failed to produce records for 26,810 securities transactions comprising over 291 million shares of stock and options in response to 2,382 EBS requests made by Commission staff, between May 1999 and April 2014, due to an error in the computer code for CGMI’s EBS response software. Despite discovering the error in late April 2014, CGMI did not report the issue to Commission staff or take steps to produce the omitted data until nine months later on January 27, 2015. CGMI’s failure to discover the coding error and to produce the missing data for many years potentially impacted numerous Commission investigations.”