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By David Henry
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Citigroup Inc Chief Executive Jane Fraser faces a struggle to convince skeptical analysts and investors that she can turn the bank around despite overseeing a radical overhaul in less than a year at the helm.
Fraser took over at the helm of the Wall Street bank in February 2021, tasked with transforming a business whose share price had lagged rivals like JPMorgan Chase & Co and Bank of America during her predecessor Michael Corbat's eight years at the helm.
Since her appointment, she has sought to simplify the firm, overseeing its biggest revamp since the 2007-09 financial crisis. The bank announced plans to exit non-core businesses, including consumer franchises in 13 markets across Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Africa last April.
On Tuesday, it doubled down, saying it planned to sell or spin-off its Mexican consumer business, which Fraser had run as head of the bank's Latin American businesses, prior to becoming CEO.
The bank went further still on Thursday, announcing the sale of its consumer businesses in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam.
The decision to sell the Mexican business, which Fraser had previously said had the scale to succeed which the bank's Asian consumer franchises lacked, is arguably her boldest move yet in reshaping the bank.
Citi's CFO Mark Mason said on Friday that the decision to exit that business was driven by the bank's strategy to focus on its institutional business. While the Mexico consumer business had delivered good returns, it would be more valuable to another owner, Mason said.
However, Citigroup's share price continues to lag rivals, suggesting that investors are yet to be convinced that Fraser's turnaround plans will bear fruit anytime soon.
"It is a show-me situation," said analyst Dick Bove of Odeon Capital. "This company has been mischaracterized, mismanaged, and poorly handled by one administration after the other for 25 years," he said.
Since Fraser took up her post last February, its shares have gained 3% compared to JPMorgan shares rising 14%, Bank of America shares gaining 40% and Wells Fargo rising 55%.
On Friday, the shares were under further pressure, down 2.5% after Citi released earnings showing a 26% slump in fourth-quarter profit as it took a hit from higher expenses and weakness at its consumer banking unit.
Fraser was questioned by analysts on Citi's conference call on the direction of the bank, answering that she aimed for it to be "the preeminent bank for institutions with cross-border needs" and was focused on improving shareholder value.
To be sure, Fraser is less than a year into her mission to turn the bank's fortunes around and investors who support her strategy stress that it will take time for the changes to improve the bank's performance.
However, she must convince analysts and investors scarred by years of disappointment with previous efforts to restructure the business. Prior to handing over the reins to Fraser, Corbat had also exited dozens of non-core businesses.
The business had sprawled under the leadership of Sandy Weill, who led the bank between 1998 and 2003. Weill led the bank through an acquisition spree before its collapse and subsequent $50 billion government bailout.
Bove cited the failed strategies of six previous CEOs before saying that Fraser's plans alone are not enough to attract investors.
The bank habitually lags the financial performance of peers and has been under enhanced supervision from regulators for many of the years since its bailout during the financial crisis.
When Citigroup last changed its leadership in 2012, its shares surged and remained elevated for months after Corbat was installed in place of Vikram Pandit.
Corbat agreed in September 2020 to give up the post to Fraser at the end of February 2021. At the time the bank faced new questions over its financial controls, including that it should have caught an erroneous payment of nearly $1 billion to holders of bonds for which it was the trustee.
Fraser's strategy is designed to simplify the company, improve its focus on its institutional businesses and put its capital to better uses.
"The new Citi is a simpler firm that has greater focus as a global banking, payments, and investing provider to multinational firms and institutions, growing corporates, and affluent individuals," Wells Fargo analyst Mike Mayo, who has an 'overweight' rating on the stock, said in a research note.
However, the plan has not yet lifted the stock.
Bove, who applauds Fraser's moves so far and recommends the shares, blames the lousy share performance on "investor exhaustion."
(Reporting by David Henry in New York; Editing by Matt Scuffham and Nick Zieminski)