Citigroup pays $285 million to settle SEC charges over CDO tied to housing market

Washington, D.C., Oct. 19, 2011 – The Securities and Exchange Commission today charged Citigroup’s principal U.S. broker-dealer subsidiary with misleading investors about a $1 billion collateralized debt obligation (CDO) tied to the U.S. housing market in which Citigroup bet against investors as the housing market showed signs of distress. The CDO defaulted within months, leaving investors with losses while Citigroup made $160 million in fees and trading profits.

The SEC alleges that Citigroup Global Markets structured and marketed a CDO called Class V Funding III and exercised significant influence over the selection of $500 million of the assets included in the CDO portfolio. Citigroup then took a proprietary short position against those mortgage-related assets from which it would profit if the assets declined in value. Citigroup did not disclose to investors its role in the asset selection process or that it took a short position against the assets it helped select.

Citigroup has agreed to settle the SEC’s charges by paying a total of $285 million, which will be returned to investors.

The SEC also charged Brian Stoker, the Citigroup employee primarily responsible for structuring the CDO transaction. The agency brought separate settled charges against Credit Suisse’s asset management unit, which served as the collateral manager for the CDO transaction, as well as the Credit Suisse portfolio manager primarily responsible for the transaction, Samir H. Bhatt.

“The securities laws demand that investors receive more care and candor than Citigroup provided to these CDO investors,” said Robert Khuzami, Director of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement. “Investors were not informed that Citgroup had decided to bet against them and had helped choose the assets that would determine who won or lost.”

Kenneth R. Lench, Chief of the Structured and New Products Unit in the SEC Division of Enforcement, added, “As the collateral manager, Credit Suisse also was responsible for the disclosure failures and breached its fiduciary duty to investors when it allowed Citigroup to significantly influence the portfolio selection process.”

According to the SEC’s complaints filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, personnel from Citigroup’s CDO trading and structuring desks had discussions around October 2006 about the possibility of establishing a short position in a specific group of assets by using credit default swaps (CDS) to buy protection on those assets from a CDO that Citigroup would structure and market. After discussions began with Credit Suisse Alternative Capital (CSAC) about acting as the collateral manager for a proposed CDO transaction, Stoker sent an e-mail to his supervisor. He wrote that he hoped the transaction would go forward and described it as the Citigroup trading desk head’s “prop trade (don’t tell CSAC). CSAC agreed to terms even though they don’t get to pick the assets.”

The SEC alleges that during the time when the transaction was being structured, CSAC allowed Citigroup to exercise significant influence over the selection of assets included in the Class V III portfolio. The transaction was marketed primarily through a pitch book and an offering circular for which Stoker was chiefly responsible. The pitch book and the offering circular were materially misleading because they failed to disclose that Citigroup had played a substantial role in selecting the assets and had taken a $500 million short position that was comprised of names it had been allowed to select. Citigroup did not short names that it had no role in selecting. Nothing in the disclosures put investors on notice that Citigroup had interests that were adverse to the interests of CDO investors.

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