Normalcy should never be a cheaply granted concept, like a prize eaten down to at the bottom of a Honeycombs cereal box.

On this subject, mark The Business Press Maven's abnormally brilliant words: In announcing an oceanic write-off for the third quarter and entertaining no real questions on the matter in the process, Citigroup's ( C) scripted, predigested and unchallenged assurances that "a return to normal earnings environment in the fourth quarter," is in the offering. No matter how appetizing to bulls, this should be examined before swallowed.

In a week in which the news from banks helped drive the stock market to new heights, Citigroup's clever claim was, as is custom, reported by a business media operating in their default mode -- as stenographers. We'll review a few examples of the business media taking dictation from a company that wouldn't even take their questions. Then we'll get to the work of one particular journalist -- Herb Greenberg -- who guides you on how to truly regard the big, reeling bank's pre-recorded words.

Normal is as normal does for The Associated Press, who in their just-the-fact's-ma'am mode was not able to do anything but regurgitate Citibank's claim. They wrote :

"The nation's largest financial institution warned that third-quarter profit will fall because of subprime mortgage and credit market exposure, but said the current period should see a return to more normal earnings levels."

End of discussion there.

That was par for the course, but Forbes was additionally disappointing as they seemed to drop a clue or two that they were prepared to -- gasp! -- dispute a company line, but then they quickly righted (technically, wronged) themselves to serve as little more than an arm of Citibank's public relations effort -- which, it bears mentioning again, was not making much effort to take questions from the public. Peculiar, I always say, for a public company and a universal warning sign to smart Business Press Maven readers: Don't risk one thin dime on one that doesn't take questions from the public. It is almost always a bad sign when companies don't -- and there are thousands of companies who do.

Anyhow, Forbes started with this headline: " Citi's Bad News Looks Good to Investors ." It held promise that there was a spread between news and perception of that news -- the gap that holds incredible opportunity as perception and reality always, in time, wind their way back together. There is money to be made in the spread beforehand. But that was not where Forbes was going. As they said right up top:

"After an early shock from a severe profit warning, Citigroup shares rallied Monday, as investors bet that a bottom was in sight for the financial sector."

OK, we're still talking a bet by investors, not necessarily the underlying reality. Then Forbes comes in with a billy club, declaring:

"If Citigroup hasn't reached a bottom, it is certainly close."

That's a whole lotta' opinion for a journalist, but if the opinion is something more than a rephrasing of corporate spin, I don't mind it at all. Not allowing a journalist opinion is a pretend play at impartiality, because when they don't offer it up themselves, they just round up quotes from people with biases anyway.

For their perspective, for example, Reuters reached out here for one and only one thing -- the less than impartial thoughts of Citibanks' largest individual shareholder:

"Prince Alwaleed says Citi profit warning a 'hiccup.'"

What came next was great. They essentially quoted Prince Alwaleed quoting Charles Prince and submitted it all for you approval:

"Citi has demonstrated outstanding record success in this year's first-half results and we continue to believe in Citi's long-term strategy for growth, and expect a normalized fourth quarter," he said.

Gushed Motley Fool: " Citigroup's a Champ ."

I thought I was headed for something better than putting some spit and polish of Citigroup's press release when I read this from The Wall Street Journal:

"Banks' Candor Makes Street Suspicious: Is Spate of Write-Downs A Sign of Transparency or 'Big Bath' Strategy?"

Here was the lead:

"In the world of banking, honesty can be a tough sell."

But the premise of the article was that the banks had taken too much of a write-off and was, in effect, sandbagging profits. Could be, of course, but any talk about candor in relation to Citibank throws savvy investors off the scent. Or, uh, the smell. Remember: This is a company that has clammed up. And rule one in The Business Press Maven's Guide to Good Investing is when they ain't talking, you ain't investing.

In contrast to all that noise, do yourself a favor and behold the work of Herb Greenburg, which appeared in both The Wall Street Journal and on MarketWatch from Dow(n) Jones. The article was called -- be still my beating heart -- "What Citigroup didn't say: investors need to go beyond company spin." The lead gave The Business Press Maven goosebumps: "When companies issue news releases, sometimes what counts isn't what is said, but what isn't." Read this highly perceptive paragraph, a wise interpretation of "normalcy":

"First, among things not said at Citigroup: There was no mention of 2008 and no explanation of the word 'normal,' and a spokeswoman declined to elaborate. However, normal quarterly earnings for Citigroup, other than an unusually strong second quarter, have been about $1 a share, give or take a few pennies. Analysts are expecting earnings of $1.10 a share in the fourth quarter. That is a penny below what they were anticipating for the third quarter, an estimate which has since been revised down to 47 cents a share."

Then Greenberg mentions the conference call or, as he puts it, "lack thereof." That's something rarely mentioned in all those reports so busy agreeing with Citibank's abnormally unchallengeable claims to normalcy.

A brief, though earnest request from Business Press Maven the Volunteer Fireman: It is Fire Prevention Week. Please make sure you have smoke alarms in your home and that they have working batteries.
At the time of publication, Fuchs had no positions in any of the stocks mentioned in this column.

A journalist with a background on Wall Street, Marek Fuchs has written the County Lines column for The New York Times for the past five years. He also contributes regular breaking news and feature stories to many of the paper's other sections, including Metro, National and Sports. Fuchs was the editor-in-chief of, a financial Web site twice named "Best of the Web" by Forbes Magazine. He was also a stockbroker with Shearson Lehman Brothers in Manhattan and a money manager. He is currently writing a chapter for a book coming out in early 2007 on a really embarrassing subject. He lives in a loud house with three children. Fuchs appreciates your feedback; click here to send him an email.

If you liked this article you might like

Sell Hewlett Packard! Against the Grain

Sell Hewlett Packard! Against the Grain

They Just Don't Get Nordstrom!

They Just Don't Get Nordstrom!

The Real Deal With Nordstrom's Sales Numbers

The Real Deal With Nordstrom's Sales Numbers

Volunteer Firemen Help Cash-strapped Cities

Volunteer Firemen Help Cash-strapped Cities

Long Live the New CEO!

Long Live the New CEO!