Who Will Take Over Citi?

As John Carney notes today, Citigroup’s market capitalization is $21 billion; that of Goldman Sachs is $20 billion. Can anyone say "merger of equals"? Nothing’s unthinkable in this market, not even the idea that you can tie two rocks together and hope that they float. Reportedly Lloyd Blankfein approached Vikram Pandit with a merger proposal in September, and was rebuffed; now, however, the matter is out of Pandit’s hands, and Citi’s board might be more amenable to such a suggestion.

A Citi-Goldman merger would give Citigroup much more credible management, assuming that the Goldman guys took over most of the top jobs, and would give Goldman a much-needed deposit base, not to mention huge distribution capacity through Smith Barney. An enormous number of Citigroup investment bankers would surely lose their jobs, but that is probably going to happen anyway. Meanwhile, Goldman’s investment bankers would suddenly see their deal pipeline fill up with the job of selling off all the bits of Citi they had no interest in keeping.

Possibly more likely is the idea that Citigroup will be nationalized this weekend, with shareholders being wiped out. John Hempton today sketches out what might happen if bondholders got wiped out at the same time; I’m reasonably confident that in the wake of the Lehman debacle there’s no way that Hank Paulson would let that happen.

In any case, with Citi shares trading at less than $4 apiece, something needs to be done. That’s one of the problems with having a public listing: everybody can see when you’re in distress, even if you stop displaying the stock price on the screens in your offices. The market is essentiallly forcing the board’s hand here — not to mention that of policymakers. Citi’s managed to muddle through this week. But my guess is that there will be some kind of major announcement over the weekend.

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