Citigroup's disappointing fourth-quarter earnings report stoked fears Friday that vulnerabilities in the global economy could lead to more strains for the sprawling megabank.
The bank's results reflect broader concerns about the impact of low oil prices and market turmoil on bank industry earnings. Those concerns are more acute at Citi than most other U.S. banks, because of its global span.
Judging from the questions executives fielded on a conference call about everything from the slowdown in China to the potential for another 2008-style crisis, worries are running high right now.
Citi's net income of $3.3 billion fell well below both the bank's third-quarter earnings and analysts' expectations. Core operating revenues were down by 5% compared with the fourth quarter of 2014, and the company built its credit reserve by nearly $500 million, following several consecutive quarters of reserve releases.
Shares in New York-based Citi were down by 6.5% in late-afternoon trading, a decline that easily outpaced the overall decline in U.S. equities prices Friday.
"Results in Citicorp were weak," Brian Kleinhanzl, an analyst at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, said in a research note, referring to the subsidiary that houses Citigroup's core businesses.
"The weakness was broad-based. It was both within the consumer bank and the institutional side of the business," Kleinhanzl added during an interview.
In Citi's international consumer banking business, revenues fell by 2% compared with the same period a year earlier, and net income fell by 28%, as expenses rose.
In the firm's North American consumer banking unit, revenues dropped by 6% compared with the same period a year earlier, but expenses declined by the same percentage. Net income in the business was down by 13% as Citi tucked aside more money for expected future losses.
Most of the revenue from Citi's U.S. consumer banking business comes from credit cards, where spending in the fourth quarter was suppressed by low gasoline prices.
Revenues in equity markets were up by 29%, and in fixed-income markets they rose by 7%. But those improvements were partially offset by a 7% decline in revenue from corporate lending.
Citi, based in New York, built its credit reserves by $494 million during the fourth quarter, following an $81 million reserve release in third quarter. Chief Financial Officer John Gerspach said that about half of the firm's reserve buildup involved energy-related loans.
"Most of the stress that we're seeing, obviously, is in the energy portion of the portfolio," he explained.
Citi's assumptions about future losses on energy loans are premised on the notion that price of oil will remain around $30 per barrel for more than a year, Gerspach said. He added that if the price of a barrel of oil were to fall to $25 per barrel and remain there for an extended period of time, the expected losses in the energy portfolio might double.
During a conference call, analysts pressed Citi executives for more details about the company's planning for oil-related losses. But they hit a brick wall when they asked the company to disclose the ratio of its energy reserves to its total energy exposure.
"I didn't give that ratio, and I don't really intend to give that ratio," Gerspach said. "But obviously we've taken what we think are the appropriate reserving actions."
Gerspach gave a more detailed response when asked to assess the country's exposure to weaknesses in the Chinese economy. He noted that Citi's aggregate exposure to China is $20.5 billion, and said that a large percentage of those loans are held by consumers and businesses that have strong credit profiles.
Citi has spent years digging out of the hole it occupied in early 2009, and Chief Executive Michael Corbat said Friday, in what has become a mantra, "We are unquestionably a safer and stronger company."
Still, amid the economic uncertainty globally, analysts posed questions Friday that carried echoes of the financial crisis.
Glenn Schorr, an analyst at Evercore ISI, asked if there is hidden leverage in the financial system that would be exposed if weaknesses in the energy sector spread to other parts of the economy.
"We haven't seen any real knock-on effects, as yet, broadly across the rest of the portfolio," Gerspach replied.
But Gerspach added that roughly one-quarter of Citi's fourth-quarter reserve build was related to broad macroeconomic factors, rather than any specific pile of loans.
"There may be knock-on effects that appear later that just aren't there right now," he said.
Another analyst, Mike Mayo of CLSA, asked whether "a vicious cycle" has dried up liquidity in financial markets.
"I think around investment-grade credits, the market is open. It will have its ups and downs, but those windows will continue to largely stay open," Corbat responded. "I think you're going to see lower segments of the credit spectrum continuing to be challenged."
Kevin Wack is a California-based reporter for American Banker who covers the U.S. consumer finance industry.
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