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Business News

Citigroup faces down furious investors

With the threat of partial nationalisation looming ever closer, Citigroup shareholders assembled yesterday for a furious and fractious meeting when directors, past and present, were subjected to boos, hissing and abuse.

Investors attacked years of poor corporate governance and reckless decision making by executives at the company - which, as one shareholder pointed out, was only able to have its annual meeting because the US government had stepped in to stop it going bust.

Four directors, including the Clinton-era Treasury secretary Robert Rubin, have stepped down as part of a management shake-up, and the crowd of more than 700 shareholders erupted into shouts of "thank God they're gone" as chairman Dick Parsons thanked them for their service.

And Mr Parsons struggled to keep control of the meeting as discussion turned to the re-election of the remaining board. At one point, two shareholders were screaming at each other across the crowded ballroom of Manhattan's Hilton Hotel.

"If we had the ability to vote for somebody else – anybody else, I don't care if it is Bernie Madoff - they would have done a better job," shareholder Jeff Herdan said, to applause. Another investor, Kenneth Steiner, said: "Never have so few done so much damage to so many as we've had at Citigroup."The financial giant has been brought low by disastrous investments in mortgage derivatives and other bad loans, which it had to write down by more than $64bn since the credit crisis began. Chuck Prince, the former chief executive forced out in November 2007, was a frequent target of attacks from the floor for his stewardship of the company. "Prince wasn't really a prince," one shareholder said, "he was a bum."

Vikram Pandit, who took over from Mr Prince, said he would not gloss over the terrible year that Citigroup had suffered, but said that no one could have foreseen the collapse in the credit markets which occurred after Lehman Brothers went bankrupt last September. Since then, Citigroup has taken $45bn in cash infusions from the US government, which is planning to convert that investment into a stake of about 36 per cent of the company in the coming weeks.

Mr Pandit said that the write downs might be reversed if there is a rebound in the economy and in the credit markets. "We hope when liquidity returns, we'll be able to recoup these losses - we hope, we hope."