The alarming, untold story of Citigroup—one of the largest financial institutions in the world—from its founding in 1812 to its role in the 2008 financial crisis, and the many near-death experiences in between.
Readers of Borrowed Time can play an amusing parlor game identifying the most misguided of those who led Citi in its problematic second century ... The authors describe in detail Citi’s successful attempt to re-integrate commercial and investment banking with its Salomon Brothers merger in 1998, followed 10 years later by the collapse of its balance sheet once again, this time with problems appearing in domestic mortgages, investment-banking products and international banking ... Freeman and McKinley strongly suggest Citi should not have been bailed out, but do not address how another bank failure in 2008 even larger than that of Lehman Brothers would have bolstered global investor confidence. However, a third alternative to Lehman-style bankruptcy existed: the nationalization of the bank, with shareholders being wiped out, followed by rapid liquidation and asset sales, while paying creditors in full. That rough justice might have restored more confidence in the U.S. financial system than a government bailout ... Borrowed Time argues that Citi—having been left mostly intact after 2008—will be at the heart of whatever future financial crisis awaits. History makes that a good bet.
The authors certainly would appear to have the credentials for a revelatory work of narrative nonfiction ... But Borrowed Time is not the book I was hoping it would be. It provides little new insight into what possessed Citigroup to go so far off the rails a decade ago and why it was not just allowed to dissolve like Lehman Brothers. Sure, Freeman and McKinley point out the important facts ... But none of this is explored in much detail, and what’s there feels rushed and perfunctory. The authors also ignore the low-hanging fruit of Citigroup whistle-blowers, like Richard Bowen and Sherry Hunt, who would have had plenty to say ... What about the sizable cast of characters that brought the bank to the brink of disaster in 2008? Surely not every one of them would have declined to be interviewed. If the book has any narrative tension, it is found in the authors’ interesting—but too quick—asides about their often unsuccessful efforts to pry supposedly public information about the bank out of its regulators ... leading Freeman and McKinley to the sound conclusion that it is 'easier to repeat history if the lessons of the past are erased.' Colorful characters show up in Borrowed Time ... Freeman and McKinley also successfully make their point that Citigroup and its predecessors have repeatedly used their political connections to help the bank survive when it otherwise would have—should have—failed. But what remains largely unanswered is why everyone bothered to do it again in 2008.
Moving the story along, the authors salt the narrative with colorful characters who have controlled the institution from top to bottom ... The boom-and-bust cycles chronicled by Freeman and McKinley accumulate in chapter after chapter until it seems that Citi executives and government regulators were little more than a procession of villains. Readers may feel hard-pressed to identify even one hero in the book. An exposé that might lead readers to stash their savings under a mattress.