What did Citi learn from its early-1990s near-death experience? Not enough, apparently

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From the prologue to Phillip L. Zweig’s Wriston: Walter Wriston, Citibank, and the Rise and Fall of American Financial Supremacy (1995):

To bring Citicorp back from the brink in the face of endless criticism, John Reed drew on the capacity for pain he had tapped into as chief of the once-troubled consumer business. As the board mulled over the possibility of replacing him, Reed hacked away at the bank’s troubled loan portfolio, its overweight bureaucracy, and the ruthless corporate culture he had helped create. By 1993 Citicorp was on the mend, and Reed had begun to regain the confidence of Wall Street and the man who had appointed him.

Citicorp had essentially lost a decade. But along the way, Reed and his institution had also lost much of their hubris. Because of that, there was finally reason to believe that their near-fatal mistakes would not soon be repeated.

Hmmm. Guess it depends on your definition of soon.

Zweig’s book, which I’ve been reading bits of for my column this week, is seriously good. It’s also seriously long: 886 pages, not counting the end notes, bibliography and index. So my reading will probably remain restricted to bits. But what bits they are! Did you know, for example, that Wriston owed his early success at Citi to:

1) lending lots of money to Aristotle Onassis to buy oil tankers

2) lending lots of money to Malcom [not a typo, a late-in-life change in name spelling] McLean to invent container shipping

3) lending lots of money to airlines to buy Boeing jets

Then he went on to shake up Citi’s international division. The man was basically globalization’s banker.