There’s not a lot of love for the big banks these days.
Case in point: A poll to be released Tuesday by a group called the Progressive Change Institute found that a majority of U.S. voters would be quite happy for Citigroup Inc. and other big banks to be broken into pieces. According to the poll, 58% of likely voters said they would support breaking up “big banks like Citigroup.”
To be sure, the Progressive Change Institute is hardly neutral on the question: It organized a protest at Citigroup’s New York headquarters last month, after Sen. Elizabeth Warren blasted the bank for its part in rolling back a small piece of the Dodd-Frank financial-reform bill. And the question is hardly worded neutrally either: It asks voters if they’d like to break up the big banks, “which played a big role in the financial crisis and recently demonstrated they still have too much power by lobbying for and winning the repeal of a major reform designed to stop Wall Street abuse and taxpayer bailouts.”
Still, breaking up the biggest banks is not merely a notion discussed by left-wing activists. Bank analysts and shareholders are starting to mull the issue as well. On a call last week to discuss J.P. Morgan Chase & Co.’s fourth-quarter earnings, CEO James Dimon was peppered with questions about whether divvying his bank into a few separate units – say, consumer banking, investment banking, business banking, and wealth management – wouldn’t unlock more potential profits for shareholders, since regulators have made it pretty darn clear that they’re not particularly enamored with the mega-bank model.
J.P. Morgan is the biggest bank in the U.S. by assets. Citigroup is No. 3, behind Bank of America Corp.
Mr. Dimon said it would be too complex to break up J.P. Morgan, and that it wouldn’t make sense anyway given how the different units work together to produce revenue and save expenses. He complained about being “under assault” by regulators.
Citigroup executives have made similar arguments. On a call last week with reporters, Citigroup’s Chief Financial Officer, John Gerspach, noted that the bank has already shrunk immensely since the financial crisis. It now has about $1.84 trillion in assets, compared to $2.19 trillion at the end of 2007.
“It’s a smaller, it’s a simpler and – I’d argue – it’s a safer institution than it was six or seven years ago,” Mr. Gerspach said. Asked if the bank had considered a breakup in the past, such as the depths of the financial crisis, Mr. Gerspach replied: “Everybody goes through various ‘what if’ scenarios. … Of course we’ve considered alternate structures.”
A Citigroup spokeswoman said Monday that the bank is “rightly scaled to serve our clients’ needs.”
“Since the financial crisis, Citi has returned to the basics of banking, has sold over 60 businesses and divested of more than $700 billion in assets,” the spokeswoman said.