Citigroup deal haunts Pandit as Saudis seek to reclaim fortune

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CEO of Citigroup Inc, Vikram Pandit

CEO of Citigroup Inc, Vikram Pandit

Saudi businessman Ghazi Abbar, who claims in an affidavit he lost $383m of his family’s fortune on investments with Citigroup, was sold one of the transactions even though the bank questioned his ability to properly manage them, according to an internal memo.

The memo, an exhibit in arbitration proceedings with the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, warned that Abbar didn’t have the risk-management capability of the large hedge funds that were typical clients of the bank’s “hybrid” desk, which in 2006 was trying to persuade him to move his family’s money into complex derivative securities.

Soured deals struck with wealthy clients are haunting Citigroup chief executive officer Vikram Pandit. Finra awarded $54m in April to customers of the New York-based bank’s municipal-bond hedge funds, and in February, Brazilian investor Bernardo Valentini sued the bank, claiming he lost more than $24m on derivatives Citigroup told him had “no risk of loss.”

“The case is a setback in Pandit’s vision of delivering financial services with a higher sense of responsibility to customers,” said David Knutson, a credit analyst with Legal & General Investment Management in Chicago.

“As each issue bubbles up, analysts or providers of capital to the firm have to say, ‘OK, what other tape bombs are lying in the dusty lines of Citi’s balance sheet?’”

Citigroup denies Abbar’s allegations, saying in a lawsuit that he was a sophisticated investor who knew the risks when he turned over control of his hedge-fund investments to the bank in exchange for derivatives that mimicked their performance. The bank has sued its former client in federal court in Manhattan to block the arbitration, arguing Finra has no jurisdiction because the deals were handled outside the US.

Danielle Romero-Apsilos, a Citigroup spokeswoman, declined to comment further.

According to the Finra claim, Citigroup had never before sold the investment idea to individual investors like Abbar, 56, whose family made its fortune in Saudi Arabia importing food and building businesses linked to tourism, aviation, cold storage, ship bunkering and oil. The hybrid team, which also arranged loans when clients wanted to leverage their bets, made about $200m for the New York-based bank in 2007, people familiar with matter said.

Based in Jeddah, a port city on the Red Sea about 50 miles from Mecca, the Abbars were among the largest merchants in Saudi Arabia, with annual revenue of about $500m, according to the internal memo. Family members had served in senior positions under the kingdom’s late rulers, kings Faisal and Saud, according to the memo.

Citigroup executives lined up to court Abbar, who oversaw the family’s investments, according to the Finra complaint. Pandit, 54, met with Abbar after joining Citigroup in 2007 as part of the company’s effort to maintain a relationship with the family. So did chief operating officer John Havens, former wealth management boss Sallie Krawcheck and current global markets head Francisco “Paco” Ybarra, according to the complaint.

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