Citigroup ( C) posted first-quarter profit of $1.6 billion versus a loss the year before, but before you celebrate you should check what kind of stock you own. If you're a preferred shareholder, say like the U.S. government, then you're in the money! If you're a common shareholder, then you get nothing. Actually, you get less than nothing. You get a loss of 18 cents a share. After cutting out $1.3 billion to reset the conversion price of preferred stock issued in January 2008, paying another $1.3 billion in preferred dividends and booking a cost of $53 million related to participation in the government's Troubled Asset Relief Program, Citigroup's profit turned into a net loss of $966 million. That's not the headline number, but it's the real number. Citi can talk all it wants about posting a net income, but the reality for ordinary shareholders is the company lost money. That is the bottom line. Now I'm not saying there's nothing to like about Citi's earnings. The $9.5 billion in revenue and $2.8 billion in profit from the institutional clients group in the first quarter is encouraging, especially considering the bank posted a $6.4 billion loss from those operations the year before. That's the bright spot. There are also some dark spots, such as the $13.1 billion in write downs, which include almost $7 billion related to bad subprime and Alt-A mortgages and $3 billion for "highly leveraged finance commitments."
All in all, Citi is still a long way from the record net income of $5.9 billion it posted in 2007. So common shareholders will have to keep waiting to get their reward for sticking with the bank. But if you're a desperate optimist looking for good news about the health of the financial sector, there are glimmers of hope in Citi's earnings, which follow positive profit news yesterday from JPMorgan Chase ( JPM)and from Wells Fargo ( WFC) last week. Now we're waiting to see what Bank of America ( BAC) will have to say on Monday.