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Citigroup agrees to deal to create biggest broker in US

CITIGROUP Inc agreed to merge its Smith Barney brokerage with Morgan Stanley's wealth management unit on Tuesday, and is expected to make further asset sales to raise capital and to isolate toxic assets from the rest of the bank.

Citigroup, once the world's largest bank, may announce plans on January 22 to formally shed the "financial supermarket" approach once championed by former Chief Executive Sanford "Sandy" Weill, but which is now being disavowed by Chief Executive Vikram Pandit. It is expected the same day to post a big fourth-quarter loss.

Citigroup is planning to adopt the equivalent of a "good bank, bad bank" structure, in which it would slim down to a business model recalling the former Citicorp, a person familiar with the plan said.

The plan envisions focusing on corporate, investment and retail banking and keeping a slimmer trading business, while moving unwanted assets and businesses such as complex debt to a separate structure, the person said on condition of anonymity.

Citigroup's "bad bank" would have about US$600 billion of assets, close to one-third of Citigroup's balance sheet, which could eventually be sold or spun off, the person said.

Assets that could be sold include its Primerica unit, which sells life insurance, mutual funds and other financial products.

Segregating bad assets has a history of success, said Mike Holland, a money manager at Holland & Co in New York. "It worked in the savings and loan crisis (in the 1980s). I'm getting a sense of deja vu, in a good way."

Citigroup declined to comment on its longer-term plans.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said in a speech on in London on Tuesday that the United States government could consider buying troubled assets, providing asset guarantees or setting up a so-called bad bank to buy assets from banks in exchange for cash and equity.

Citigroup got US$25 billion from the government last October and another US$20 billion of capital in November as part of a package.

The joint venture with Morgan Stanley will create the largest US brokerage, Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, with more than 20,000 brokers and US$1.7 trillion in client assets. The number of brokers will surpass that of Bank of America Corp, which bought former No. 1 Merrill Lynch on January 1.


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