Citi Not Quite As Awful As Last Year, Says Dow Jones

Here’s a strange Wall Street Journal headline (of a Dow Jones Newswires story): “Citi Loss Narrows.”

Yeah—to $7.6 billion. Is the fact that it lost fewer billions than it did a year ago really your lede? Well, it leads the lede, anyway:

Citigroup Inc.’s fourth-quarter loss narrowed from a year earlier but results continue to show the strains from the bank’s massive portfolio of troubled loans that led to the financial crisis.

This story is reaching for a way to spin these results to look less awful. Here’s the second paragraph:

Although Citi didn’t turn a profit in the quarter, it delivered something that J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. didn’t: an improvement in losses from consumer loans in the United States, Asia, and Latin America.

Well, all right then! You know things are bad when a $7.1 billion net credit loss is considered an “improvement.” It’s accurate: Citi lost $7.9 billion in the fourth quarter of 2008. But why put that up so high? The far-more-critical fact that revenue was down 4.3 percent from a year ago? Relegated to the ninth paragraph.

And let’s not forget that the accounting rules have changed since last year. Companies like Citigroup are allowed to mark to myth since April, where before they had to mark assets to their market prices. How much of that improvement in loan losses is from accounting “adjustments”?

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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 Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.