Citigroup’s Chuck Prince wants to keep dancing, and can you really blame him?

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Citigroup bossman Chuck Prince had something interesting to say in the FT today:

The Citigroup chief executive told the Financial Times that the party would end at some point but there was so much liquidity it would not be disrupted by the turmoil in the US subprime mortgage market.

He denied that Citigroup, one of the biggest providers of finance to private equity deals, was pulling back.

“When the music stops, in terms of liquidity, things will be complicated. But as long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance. We’re still dancing,” he said in an interview with the FT in Japan.

Now the prospect of Chuck Prince dancing is in itself unsettling. But his account amounts to quite an elegant explanation of why financial bubbles persist. Even if Citigroup’s executives were worried that private equity valuations have gotten too frothy and loan terms too loose, it would make little sense for them to pull back. Because they can never know for sure when the music’s going to stop, and they’d be crazy to forego all those underwriting fees for the year or two or three before it does. So they keep dancing.

Then again, maybe some of us are just too eager to call this boom a bubble. Yesterday Moody’s reported that global defaults of speculative-grade debt (a.k.a. junk) in the second quarter were at their lowest level since 1995. I would bet that default rate is about to start rising, but still: The world’s big corporations are doing spectacularly well at the moment. Can you blame Chuck Prince for wanting to throw more money at them?

Update: Blogger Yves Smith points out the big problem with Prince’s approach:

Even if Citigroup has only limited exposure to LBO paper by virtue of keeping little on its books, I guarantee you that when the credit tightens further and the economy weakens, enough of these deals will come a cropper that there will be a hue and cry to find who was responsible. At a minimum, Citi will have a lot of explaining to do.

… Prince has in essence said he knows that when the music stops, it won’t be one chair that will be removed, but several, perhaps most. He seems supremely confident in his ability to know when to exit, but with everyone planning to stay as late as they can, he is likely to be underestimating how quickly conditions can change.

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