Government moves shouldn't affect bank operations

The U.S. government may be tightening its grip on the banking system, but don't expect it to change your branch's hours, tack fees onto your account or overhaul your bank's Web site.

The federal government doesn't want to be running banks' daily operations, financial analysts say. Not only would it rub Americans raised on free-market values the wrong way, but the task also would be too massive and complicated.

That's not to say there won't be big changes made by the government at banks like Citigroup Inc. — a company that is shrinking drastically. But many of the changes consumers are likely to see will be made by the banks themselves to save money — already, Citigroup, Bank of America Corp., JPMorgan Chase & Co. and others have been increasing credit card rates.

The government's growing influence over certain financial institutions will probably not be noticeable to average customers making deposits, getting mortgages or signing up for cards — unless regulators decide a bank needs to sell branches to another institution.

"We're not going to end up with Citi as a government-owned banking utility. I just don't see it," said Bert Ely, an independent banking industry consultant in Alexandria, Va.

"What this company faces are very major strategic issues: What businesses it's going to sell, what its top management will be. None of this is going to come down to the branch level."

Celent banking analyst Bart Narter said the government wants to avoid being in the banking business, and instead is trying to "stabilize Citi, and winnow it down to something manageable."

"In a year," Narter said, "Citi will be an extremely changed entity to the point where its own mother wouldn't recognize it."

Citigroup, having suffered five straight quarterly losses, has already split into two organizational structures, Citicorp and Citi Holdings. Citicorp will focus on traditional banking around the world, while Citi Holdings will manage the company's riskier assets and more complex businesses. These Citi Holdings assets are expected to be sold off to raise capital. So far, the company has already sold control of its Smith Barney brokerage, its German retail bank operations and other divisions for cash.

Eventually, with more prodding by the government, "you'll be back to the old Citibank that John Reed ran. Everything else will be gone," said William Smith, CEO of Smith Asset Management, which owns Citi shares. John Reed was CEO of the commercial bank Citicorp before it merged with Sandy Weill's financial services company Travelers Group in 1998 to become the massive conglomerate known today as Citigroup.

For Smith, more government control of Citigroup is a positive move.

"This is the first time you'll ever hear me say this, but I'm in favor of the government being a shareholder with me," Smith said, adding that the Treasury Department is already exerting a great deal of power over Citigroup management. "They are more friend than foe. We needed a grown-up there."

Analysts say the government could replace executives and board members, as it did with the ailing insurer American International Group Inc.

If there is any change at the consumer level, it could be a helpful one: More loans.

"It's hard to say, 'Typically, this is what happens,' because it's uncharted territory," said Aite Group analyst Alois Pirker. But when it comes to the government's agenda of boosting lending, Pirker said, "it's hard for me to imagine that it wouldn't use this opportunity to interfere at some level ... It might be a little easier to get to loans."

To be sure, no one is expecting mortgages, cards or other forms of credit to bounce back to pre-meltdown levels. No matter how heavy-handed the government becomes, the U.S. banking system will be feeling the effects of the weak economy for many years to come, analysts say — and that means strict underwriting standards.

And it's possible that more drastic changes will occur for consumers if the government eventually withdraws its support. A wave of consolidation in the banking industry has been turning Washington Mutual customers into JPMorgan Chase & Co. customers; Wachovia customers into Wells Fargo & Co. customers; and National City customers into PNC Financial customers.

"At some point, not immediately," said NAB Research analyst Nancy Bush, "the government is going to say, 'OK, we stabilized you — now it's time to go find a partner'."


AP Business Writer Ieva M. Augstums in Charlotte, N.C. and AP Economics Writer Jeannine Aversa in Washington contributed to this report.

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