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Distancing itself from financial meltdown, Citigroup agrees to $7B settlement over mortgages

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WASHINGTON - Citigroup agreed Monday to pay $7 billion to settle a federal investigation into its handling of risky subprime mortgages, admitting to a pattern of deception that Attorney General Eric Holder said "shattered lives" and contributed to the worst financial crisis in decades.

The settlement represents a moment of reckoning for one of the country's biggest and most significant banks, which will now be responsible for providing financial support to Americans whose lives were dismantled by the largest economic meltdown since the Great Depression.

Besides a $4 billion civil penalty, the bank will also pay $2.5 billion in consumer relief to help borrowers who lost their homes to foreclosure and settle claims from state attorneys general and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. The settlement does not preclude the possibility of criminal prosecutions for the bank or individual employees in the future, the Justice Department said.

The $7 billion settlement, which represents about half of Citigroup's $13.7 billion profit last year, is the latest substantial penalty sought for a bank or mortgage company at the epicenter of the housing crisis. The Justice Department, criticized for not being aggressive enough in targeting financial misconduct, has in the last year reached a $13 billion deal with JPMorgan Chase & Co., the nation's largest bank, and also sued Bank of America Corp. for misleading investors in its sale of mortgage-linked securities.

Yet the settlement packages pale in size compared to the broader damages caused by the Great Recession. The unemployment rate spiked to 10 per cent as millions lost their jobs and their homes, causing losses that totalled in the trillions of dollars. And consumers groups criticized the settlement as a sweetheart deal for a major bank.

"In the context of the damage done, the damage even described by the attorney general, we're not even in the same ballpark," said Bartlett Naylor, financial policy advocate for Public Citizen, which represents consumer interests.

The settlement stems from the sale of toxic securities made up of subprime mortgages, which led to both the housing boom and bust that triggered the Great Recession at the end of 2007. Banks, including Citigroup, minimized the risks of subprime mortgages when packaging and selling them to mutual funds, investment trusts and pensions, as well as other banks and investors.

The securities, which contained so-called residential mortgage-backed securities, plunged in value when the housing market collapsed in 2006 and 2007 and investors suffered billions of dollars in losses. Those losses triggered a financial crisis that pushed the economy into the worst recession since the 1930s.

One Citigroup trader wrote in an internal email that he "would not be surprised if half of these loans went down" and said it was "amazing that some of these loans were closed at all," and the bank itself increased its profits and share of the market, the Justice Department said.

"They did so at the expense of millions of ordinary Americans and investors of all types — including other financial institutions, universities and pension funds, cities and towns, and even hospitals and religious charities," Holder said at a news conference announcing the settlement.

Justice Department officials called the $4 billion the largest civil penalty of its kind and said it will not be tax-deductible.

The $2.5 billion in consumer relief is directed at underwater homeowners and borrowers in areas of the country with high numbers of distressed properties and foreclosures. The sum includes refinancing for homeowners struggling with high interest rates on their mortgages, closing cost help for borrowers who lost homes to foreclosure and financing for construction and affordable rental housing.

Citigroup should have the capital needed to absorb the $7 billion settlement, said Gerard Cassidy, a managing director and analyst at RBC Capital Markets. In fact, investors were relieved that the issue was no longer confronting the bank and pushed up Citigroup's stock price on Monday.

But the "unintended consequence" of the settlement is that banks such as Citigroup are less likely to lend, hurting would-be homebuyers with student debt who are seeking a mortgage.

"Banks won't go near those customers because, in our opinion, the severity of the penalties that they paid," Cassidy said.

JPMorgan's $13 billion deal followed an investigation into similar toxic-mortgage backed securities. That deal included $4 billion in relief to homeowners affected by the bad loans. Citigroup argued that it should settle for a comparatively modest sum because it issued fewer mortgages than JP Morgan Chase the subsidiaries that bank acquired during the recession. But the Justice Department countered that Citigroup offered a greater share of troubled mortgage-backed securities.

Investors shrugged off the settlement, a sign that they expect Citigroup will continue to operate without much disruption. Shares in Citi rose $1.67 — or 3.6 per cent — to $48.67 because the bank beat the expectations in the market, after adjusting for the second-quarter $3.8 billion charge related to the Justice Department settlement.

CEO Michael Corbat said the settlement ends all pending civil investigations related to Citigroup's handling of mortgage-backed securities.

Citigroup said its net income dropped in the second quarter after the settlement was arranged.

On a per-share basis, net income was 3 cents, compared with $1.34 in the second quarter a year earlier. Excluding the charges and an accounting loss, the bank's second-quarter profit rose 1 per cent to $3.93 billion, or $1.24 a share.

Revenue was $19.4 billion, excluding the accounting loss, compared with $20 billion a year earlier.

The two sides had earlier been far apart in their negotiations. The Justice Department was preparing to sue the bank last month after it offered to pay under $4 billion to resolve the matter, a sum substantially less than what the government was seeking.

____

Josh Boak and Marcy Gordon in Washington and Steve Rothwell in New York contributed to this report.

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