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U.S. gave up billions in tax money in deal for Citigroup's bailout repayment

Citigroup says it has built up $38 billion in losses. With the tax exemption, it will be able to shelter up to $38 billion in future profits.
Citigroup says it has built up $38 billion in losses. With the tax exemption, it will be able to shelter up to $38 billion in future profits. (Richard Drew/associated Press)

Federal regulators initially told Citigroup and other troubled banks that they would be required to hold on to the federal aid for some time as they return to health. But in recent months, the government switched to pushing the companies to repay the money as soon as possible. All nine firms that took federal money last October now have approved plans to pay it back.

This urgency has come despite the lingering concerns of many financial experts about the companies' health. These analysts said they worry that the firms could face rising losses next year as high unemployment and economic weakness continue to drive great numbers of borrowers into default.

"They are rolling the dice big time," said Christopher Whalen, a financial analyst with Institutional Risk Analytics. "My fear is that the banks will definitely have to raise a lot more capital next year. The question is from whom and on what terms."

The Citigroup repayment deal required significant sacrifices by both sides, underscoring the mutual determination to get it done. Citigroup was required to replace its federal aid with an equal amount of money from private investors, more than any other bank. The government concluded that Citigroup needed the IRS ruling because a reduction in the value of its tax breaks would have eroded its capital, forcing the company to raise more money, officials said.

Federal tax law lets companies reduce taxable income in a good year by the amount of losses in bad years. But the law limits the transfer of those benefits to new ownership as a way of preventing profitable companies from buying losers to avoid taxes. Under the law, the government's sale of its 34 percent stake in Citigroup, combined with the company's recent sales of stock to raise money, qualified as a change in ownership.

The IRS notice issued Friday saves Citigroup from the consequences by stipulating that the government's share sale does not count toward the definition of an ownership change. The company, which pushed for the ruling, did not return calls for comment.

At the end of the third quarter, Citigroup said that the value of its past losses was about $38 billion, allowing it to avoid taxes on its next $38 billion in profits. Under normal IRS rules, a change in control would sharply reduce the amount of profits that Citigroup could shelter from taxes in any given year, making it much more difficult for Citigroup to realize the entire benefit before the tax breaks expired.

The precise value of the IRS ruling depends on Citigroup's future profitability and other factors, but two accounting experts said it was fair to estimate that Citigroup would save at least several billion dollars as a result.

Treasury acknowledged that the tax break was significant, but a senior official said the benefit was unavoidable. Either the government changed the rules and parted ways with Citigroup or the company kept the government as a shareholder and kept the tax break anyway.

"The choice is whether Treasury sells or doesn't sell," the official said.


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