Bull vs. Bear: Citigroup

By Matthew Frankel and Dan CaplingerFool.com

There are several stocks in the market that the experts are divided on, and Citigroup is definitely one of them. While the bank has made significant progress over the past few years, its low dividend and lack of sustained profitability are a cause for concern.

We asked two of our contributors, one a Citigroup bull and the other a bear, to present both sides of the argument, and here's what they had to say.

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Dan Caplinger: It's hard to get excited about Citigroup's prospects. The bank only got permission earlier this year to boost its dividend from its financial-crisis-era penny-per-share quarterly payout, and even with the increase, Citigroup's yield of less than 0.4% stands as the lowest among the major banks in the industry.

From a fundamental standpoint, Citigroup continues to struggle. Revenue in its most recent quarter dropped by $1 billion, and even though adjusted net income soared by $1.1 billion, those gains were entirely due to declines in legal and related expenses from the $1.6 billion Citigroup spent in the third quarter of 2014. Both total loans and total deposits fell by mid-single-digit percentages in the third quarter compared to the previous year, and mild strength in its Institutional Clients group wasn't enough to offset an 8% decline in the Citicorp segment's global consumer banking division.

Admittedly, Citigroup looks a lot better than it did several years ago, as it has seen credit quality rise and has sold off some poor-performing assets. If the company can sustain its earnings growth, then further dividend increases could come as soon as next year. Nevertheless, competitors have also moved forward, and that will make it hard for Citigroup to catch up from the head-start it has given rival banks.

Matt Frankel: There are certainly several reasons to be cautious on Citigroup, but I feel the company's long-term potential certainly outweighs the negatives.

Citigroup is a much-improved bank from just a few years ago. The company produced a 0.99% return on assets (ROA) during the third quarter, just below the 1% figure banks generally aim for. Citicorp, which excludes the bank's legacy assets, operated at a 55% efficiency ratio -- better than Bank of America or JPMorgan Chase, and in the ballpark of rock-solid Wells Fargo.

Speaking of legacy assets, the Citi Holdings division is doing a good job of steadily winding down its unwanted assets, which sit at $110 billion, down 20% from a year ago and from more than $400 billion in 2010. Now, $110 billion in unwanted assets is a lot, and many of them are of poor quality, but the bank is doing a good job of getting rid of them.

Citigroup has steadily become better capitalized, and the company's Common Equity Tier 1 Ratio has grown from 10.6% to 11.6% over the past year, continuing a multi-year trend.

Source: Citigroup.

To sum it up, Citigroup is a much different bank than the one that teetered on the verge of collapse during the financial crisis, but it is still trading like one. Shares trade for just 90% of their tangible book value, and have appreciated by only 7% over the past two years, despite the improvements I mentioned. I think the progress made by Citigroup, and its future potential, more than justify any risks that come with it.

The article Bull vs. Bear: Citigroup originally appeared on Fool.com.

Dan Caplinger has no position in any stocks mentioned. Matthew Frankel owns shares of Bank of America. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Wells Fargo. The Motley Fool has the following options: short January 2016 $52 puts on Wells Fargo. The Motley Fool recommends Bank of America. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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