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Citigroup's first-quarter results suggest tough year ahead

A Citigroup logo is pictured from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange July 9, 2014. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

By David Henry and Sweta Singh

(Reuters) - Citigroup Inc (C.N) reported a sharp decline in quarterly profit on Friday, hit by weak revenue, costs related to shrinking businesses, and loans to energy companies that are going bad.

On conference calls, executives suggested the pain might not be over by saying the bank is unlikely to meet a key performance target, and that it could $400 million more in credit costs this year than previously thought if oil prices drop by a certain amount.

"2016 didn't get off to the start we hoped for," Chief Executive Michael Corbat said on a conference call to discuss results with analysts.

Citigroup, the fourth largest U.S. lender by assets, reported the biggest drop in profit among big U.S. banks that have released first-quarter results so far. However, lower operating expenses helped the bank beat Wall Street's low expectations.

Citi's share price was little changed by the close of trading, down 6 cents at $44.92. The shares are trading at a sharp discount to the value the bank places on its hard assets of $62.58 per share.

Banks globally have had a tough start to the year amid near-zero interest rates and an economic slowdown in China. Their loans to energy companies have only made things worse, as a slump in oil prices has led to bankruptcies and financial stress for many oil and gas producers. The industry has been doing all it can to reduce costs in an effort to minimize the blow of lower revenue.

Citigroup recorded $491 million in so-called "repositioning" charges as part of its cost-cutting effort. Those costs included severance payments for managers and trading staff, moving certain positions to lower-cost cities, and changing the way it uses real estate sometimes by exiting locations.

Wall Street businesses are getting hit because revenue is hard to come by. Citigroup's trading revenue dropped 15 percent last quarter from the year-ago period, while revenue from deals and underwriting fell 27 percent.

Citigroup is cutting back in areas where executives think revenue will not be coming back, Chief Financial Officer John Gerspach said. In fixed-income, he hinted that cuts are happening in businesses including one that sells products that trade on differences between yields on different bonds. In contrast, Citigroup's interest-rate trading is booming.

"We are making selective reductions where we need to," Gerspach said, to reflect "what we think the market reality is going forward."


Citigroup also had some troubles in its energy loan portfolio, like its peers JPMorgan Chase & Co (JPM.N), Bank of America Corp (BAC.N) and Wells Fargo & Co (WFC.N), which reported earnings earlier in the week.

Nonetheless, Gerspach said the bank has "a very good book of energy loans" relative to competitors, and some analysts agreed.

"The market is acting as though there were a significant credit quality issue lurking, which we think is highly unlikely and Citi's numbers were once again outstanding on that front," Oppenheimer's Chris Kotowski said in a note to clients, pointing out the stock's large discount to tangible book value.

Still, the bank is facing the kind of profit pressure that has been plaguing the finance sector for some time. While its operating expenses declined 3.0 percent to $10.5 billion, revenue fell 11 percent. Repositioning costs are expected to be much lower through the rest of 2016, but Gerspach said weak business so far will likely result in a worse-than-expected ratio of costs to revenue for the full year of about 58 percent.

It's "tough to recover from the first quarter that we had," he said.

Overall, Citigroup's net income fell to $3.5 billion, or $1.10 per share, during the first quarter, beating the average analyst estimate of $1.03 per share, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

Revenue, at $17.56 billion, topped the average estimate of $17.48 billion.

(Reporting by Sweta Singh in Bengaluru and David Henry in New York; additional reporting by Dan Freed in New York; Writing by Lauren Tara LaCapra; Editing by Kirti Pandey)