Citi Execs Offer Optimism, Thin Details

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Citigroup ( C) executives made good headlines Monday by predicting the battered company will someday repay federal bailout funds, but the vague proclamations didn't tell investors much they didn't already know.

Citi CEO Vikram Pandit, in an interview that aired late Monday, was vague when CNBC's Maria Bartiromo asked when the company would be able to return the U.S. government's massive investment made through the Troubled Assets Relief Program.

"Obviously that's something that we have to work out with the regulators and the Treasury," he said. " We're looking forward to seeing what the regulators say about what the right long-term capital structure ought to be and we'll let that guide us."

Citi has raised $85 billion through private equity sales, asset sales and company sales in the past 18 months, Pandit said, noting its capital ratios "are very good." The company received $45 billion through TARP.

"Our losses are far, far, far smaller than that," he added. "You have to overshoot the market."

Pandit's interview came on the heels of a Bloomberg report, in which Citi Chairman Richard Parsons was equally evasive.

"I have every confidence that Citi will be able to exit the TARP program, and actually be able to give the American taxpayer a decent return," Parsons told Bloomberg. "I can't put a timeframe on it, but I'm very confident we'll get there."

Pandit told Bartiromo that when he came on board in late 2007, Citi was struggling with three fundamental questions: Whether or not it had the right strategy, whether its assets were strong enough to weather the storm and whether its culture was the right one to give the company a chance for success.

"I think we've turned the corner on all three," he said. "We can see the results in how well the businesses are doing."

But when Bartiromo went right for the jugular and asked when the company would return to operating profitability -- a question that investors and analysts have been wondering for some time -- Pandit was again vague.

"A lot of this to me is a question of where the economy is," Pandit said. He noted that two particularly troubling businesses for the company are the credit card and mortgage portfolios. "When we see those assets turn, I think you will start to see a change in the profitability of Citi. ... We do believe that we're seeing some good signs in both the credit card portfolio and the mortgage portfolio."

Citi had five consecutive quarters of earnings losses through December 2008. The company made a small profit in the first quarter and again for the three months ending June 30, but only because it had a $11 billion gain from the June sale of a majority stake in Smith Barney to Morgan Stanley ( MS).

Shares were flat in after-hours trading Monday, after closing down nine cents to $4.52.

--Written by Laurie Kulikowski in New York.

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