As we try to make sense of the Citigroup (C) - Get Citigroup Inc. Report bailout plan today, The Business Press Maven wants you to know that nothing you read will do you a fat lot of good unless it does three things.
The first thing the bailout coverage must do is provide an overview of recent history and, specifically, how other government bailout plans of banks were greeted with relief by investors, who within days lost their confidence again.
The second thing the coverage must provide is an explanation of why this time -- and this plan with Citigroup -- might be different. Regardless of what that explanation is, this must be explained.
The third feature is less central than the first two, but it's still important. The government put restrictions on the dividend that Citigroup can pay out over the next three years. Any article you read should mention this, too.
The New York Times
does yeoman's work on the first two features but lets the third slide. In the top third of the article, it sets the stage appropriately:
"Whether this latest rescue plan will help calm the markets is uncertain, given the stress in the financial system caused by losses at Citigroup and other banks. Each previous government effort initially seemed to reassure investors, leading to optimism that the banking system had steadied. But those hopes faded as the economic outlook worsened, raising worries that more bank loans were turning sour."
It's important to realize, as overseas markets reacted with an initial burst of enthusiasm overnight, that in the recent past such enthusiasm has fallen by the wayside. But it is just as important to realize the differences here -- that this plan runs along the lines of the Swiss plan to secure
-- as the
illustrates a few paragraphs later:
"The plan could herald another shift in the government's financial rescue. The Treasury Department first proposed buying troubled assets from banks but then reversed course and began injecting capital directly into financial institutions. Neither plan, however, restored investors' confidence for long. ...
this agreement, Citigroup and regulators will back up to $306 billion of largely residential and commercial real estate loans and certain other assets, which will remain on the bank's balance sheet. Citigroup will shoulder losses on the first $29 billion of that portfolio.
"Any remaining losses will be split between Citigroup and the government, with the bank absorbing 10 percent and the government absorbing 90 percent. The Treasury Department will use its bailout fund to assume up to $5 billion of losses. If necessary, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation will bear the next $10 billion of losses. Beyond that, the Federal Reserve will guarantee any additional losses."
Despite its good perspective on recent history and detailed explanation about why this plan is a departure, the
mentioned nothing about dividend restrictions. It did manage to say a word or two about executive compensation restrictions, but while that resonates on an emotional level (who wants these guys making out like bandits?), the dividend stands as a more substantive issue for shareholders.
CNNMoney.com, by contrast, gets
: "The government will impose restrictions as well. Citigroup will be prohibited from paying out a dividend of more than a penny per share for the next three years."
The CNNMoney.com take is positive, from its presumptive headline -- "Citi dodges bullet" -- to its purported proof --"Citigroup shares rose 31% in premarket trading Monday." Soon, we hear about how European markets and the American futures market reacted happily to the news, but there is nothing on the recent pattern of hopes rising in this fashion, then falling back down.
CNNMoney.com does sketch out the details of the plan, and the savvy investor might be able to infer that they are different, but without putting these details in the proper perspective of a change in tactics toward the Swiss-UBS model after several false-hope plans, the article does not inform you, even though it did well to mention the dividend cut.
Just make certain the article you are reading this busy, confusing day provides you three things. It's the least you deserve.
At the time of publication, Fuchs had no positions in any of the stocks mentioned in this column.
Marek Fuchs was a stockbroker for Shearson Lehman Brothers and a money manager before becoming a journalist who wrote The New York Times' "County Lines" column for six years. He also did back-up beat coverage of The New York Knicks for the paper's Sports section for two seasons and covered other professional and collegiate sports. He has contributed frequently to many of the Times' other sections, including National, Metro, Escapes, Style, Real Estate, Arts & Leisure, Travel, Money & Business, Circuits and the Op-Ed Page. For his "Business Press Maven? column on how business and finance are covered by the media, Fuchs was named best business journalist critic in the nation by the Talking Biz website at The University of North Carolina School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Fuchs is a frequent speaker on the business media, in venues ranging from National Public Radio to the annual conference of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. Fuchs appreciates your feedback;
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