Bloomberg’s Jonathan Weil has a great column today on Citigroup not coming clean on its buckled balance sheet.

Let’s say a company’s board or management concludes mid- quarter that big charges to earnings are needed to write down impaired assets. Under the Securities and Exchange Commission’s rules, that must be disclosed within four business days in an SEC filing. If the size can’t be determined, disclosure is still required; the company just has to say it’s unable to make a good-faith estimate of the amount.

It’s been more than a week since Citigroup reached its Nov. 23 welfare deal with the government. Since then, it has made no such disclosure filing, though it did issue a press release on Nov. 19 divulging $1.1 billion of new investment losses.

That leaves a couple of possible explanations. Somehow, the people running Citigroup have imagined a way to avoid concluding that massive writedowns are needed, even after determining the bank might not survive without another bailout. Or — and here’s the odds-on favorite — Citigroup’s bosses operate as if the rules don’t apply to them.

This is the best explanation of Citi’s government bailout that you’re going to see anywhere:

One reason we know Citigroup is anticipating huge losses is that the terms of its latest bailout agreement envision them. Citigroup is responsible for the first $29 billion of losses in the government-guaranteed portfolio, which includes loans and securities backed by residential and commercial real estate. The government will assume 90 percent of any other losses, with Citigroup taking the rest.

In return, Citigroup is handing the feds $7 billion of preferred stock. How sweet is that? Imagine an insurance company offering to charge you a $7,000 premium with a $29,000 deductible to insure your $306,000 house, knowing full well that the master bedroom is on fire.

And Weil, whom we interviewed here a few weeks ago, twists the knife in the next paragraph:

That’s more than a helping hand. It’s a gift. The spillover benefit for the world at large is that a global financial meltdown is averted again, for now, and Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal’s 4 percent stake in Citigroup is saved.

Can’t argue with that, can you?

 

 

Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu.