NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Citigroup (C) , the third-largest bank in the U.S. by total assets, will report third-quarter earnings results before the opening bell Thursday. And it would seem, based on the stock's 8% decline in the past three months, that investors are getting anxious about what the New York-based money-center bank might reveal. But the situation isn't as dire as it might appear.

True, Citigroup, whose shares are down 5% year-to-date at around $51, has seen its consensus earnings per share estimate for the just-ended quarter decline more than 2% in the past seven days, from $1.35 a share to $1.32. Also during that span, consensus estimates for the quarter ending in December and for the fiscal year have both been reduced by a penny.

But investors would do well to focus more on what these estimates mean. Even with the lack of confidence implied by the reduced estimates, Citigroup is still projected to significantly improve on its quarterly and annual comparable results. For instance, for the quarter that ended September, earnings of $1.32 a share would still be a 50% year-over-year increase, topping the 88 cents a share earned in 2014's third quarter.

Likewise, for the fiscal year, EPS of $5.63 would translate to a year-over-year improvement of 155%. These projected gains -- as high as they appear -- highlight the regulatory and legal settlements Citigroup has faced in the past, which have eaten into its profits. Nonetheless, the numbers also reflect some of the operational improvements the bank has made to grow earnings in this chronically low interest rate environment, which has pressured its revenue and profits.

These improvements include divesting its low-performing Japanese credit card businesses as well as its Nicaraguan operation. It also sold its OneMain Financial business to Springleaf Holdings (LEAF) .

In its new, streamlined form, the bank has not only been more focused, but also more profitable, delivering net income of $1.63 billion in the second quarter (up 4%). This was despite second-quarter revenue falling 1.6% to $19.15 billion.

All told, Citigroup, which has a consensus buy rating and an average analyst 12-month price target of $65 -- 26% above current levels -- appears transformed. And with industry and economic experts predicting the Federal Reserve will raise rates sooner rather than later -- which will have a positive long-term effect on banking sector profits -- Citigroup is one of the safer ways to play a rate hike.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.

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