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Citigroup Gets 'Sell' Rating, May Face $15 Billion Hit

Goldman Sachs downgraded Citigroup to "sell" from "neutral," and said the largest U.S. bank may have to write off $15 billion over the next two quarters as mortgage losses reduce earnings.

The report from analyst William Tanona came shortly after Citigroup's own chief U.S. equity strategist, Tobias Levkovich, upgraded the nation's banking sector to "overweight" from
"market weight," calling selling pressure "overdone."

The Citibank logo is shown on a branch office Wednesday, April 11, 2007 in New York. Citigroup Inc., which includes Citibank, announced Wednesday that it will eliminate about 17,000 jobs as part of a companywide restructuring to reduce costs and improve profits. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
Mark Lennihan
The Citibank logo is shown on a branch office Wednesday, April 11, 2007 in New York. Citigroup Inc., which includes Citibank, announced Wednesday that it will eliminate about 17,000 jobs as part of a companywide restructuring to reduce costs and improve profits. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)


Citigroup shares fell $1.13, or 3.3 percent, to $32.87 in morning trading. They began the year at $55.70.

Goldman's forecast compares with the $8 billion to $11 billion that Citigroup on Nov. 4 said it may write off this quarter for exposure to subprime mortgages and collateralized debt obligations. Charles Prince, Citigroup's chief executive, resigned the same day.

"With deteriorating consumer and housing metrics, Citigroup is facing mounting pressure across many businesses," Tanona wrote. "The lack of leadership at this point in Citigroup's storied history could not have come at a worse time."

Tanona also cut Citigroup's price target to $33 from $48, and his profit-per-share forecast to $3.80 from $4.65 for 2008, and to $4.60 from $5.20 in 2009. He said the bank may need to
cut its 54-cents-per-share quarterly dividend or find new capital to shore up capital levels.

The analyst also lowered his price targets for six other banks and brokerages: Bear Stearns , E+Trade Financial, JPMorgan Chase, Lehman Brothers Holdings, Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley.

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Banks have announced more than $50 billion of write-downs tied to the U.S. housing slump, as defaults soared and the value of mortgages that investors deemed too risky plummeted.

The projected $8 billion to $11 billion write-down is on top of a top of a $1.83 billion mortgage-related loss that Citigroup took in the third quarter. The New York-based bank on Nov. 4 said it had no plans to cut its dividend.

Goldman expects an $11 billion write-down this quarter, and $4 billion in the first quarter of 2008. A $15 billion loss would, after taxes, wipe out close to six months of profit.

"(The) risk taking culture may be irreparably damaged," Tanona wrote.

Among 19 analysts who cover Citigroup, eight rate it "buy" or the equivalent, eight rate it "hold" and three rate it "sell," according to Reuters Estimates.

Tanona issued his report after Citigroup strategist Levkovich on Nov. 16 upgraded the banking sector, saying it has "compelling valuations and beaten down earnings estimate revisions, not to mention repulsive sentiment around these stocks, a contrarian signal."

Levkovich also wrote that worries about subprime exposures have created a "pile-on effect that seems to be overdone." He admitted his upgrade may seem "fairly controversial."