How Citibank Accidentally Paid Revlon's $900 Million Loan : Planet Money Last year, one of the biggest banks accidentally paid off a client's loan to its lenders — a $900 million mistake. Some of the recipients wouldn't give the money back. And then a surprising court ruling affirmed their no give-back. | Subscribe to our weekly newsletter here.

Banque Worms

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Last summer, one of the biggest banks in the universe made one of the biggest mistakes in the universe. And it all starts with this one guy in Delaware. This guy in Delaware works at Citibank. On any given day, he and a team oversee millions and millions and millions of dollars moving through the bank's pipes.

KATHERINE DOHERTY: Because sometimes banks loan money to people or businesses, but other times they basically just babysit other people's loans. So sometimes when lenders have lent money to a company, they'll pay Citibank to just administer the loan - to oversee it. Like, when a company makes interest payments to its lenders, Citibank helps move that money. So that's this guy's job - check the right boxes, approve the payments, off it goes. Money trundling along from borrower to lender or lender to borrower.

CHILDS: And on August 11, they're supposed to send out a payment on behalf of Revlon, the makeup company. Revlon borrowed money in 2016 and has to make periodic interest payments on that loan until 2023. So every few months, Citibank sends a couple million dollars from Revlon to the lenders, the people that lent Revlon money.

DOHERTY: Our guy in Delaware is but two eyes in what Citibank calls its six eyes approval process. First, a contractor in India manually enters the payment information. Then another guy, also in India, checks his work and then our guy in Delaware approves it. Three people, six eyes.

CHILDS: Today's payment is not a normal one. It's a complicated, multi-step transaction. And Citibank software is really jenky (ph), so basically the only way to complete the wonky transaction is to sort of momentarily trick the software into thinking that Revlon has repaid the entire loan.


DOHERTY: So the first set of eyes, the guy in India, carefully checks the special box to fake pay off that whole loan to real send the payment. So just to be clear, he is checking boxes to sort of pretend to send $900 million, but he's actually sending just a few million dollars. So the second guy checks it, Delaware guy checks it, and he says, looks good. The contractor in India clicks. He gets a little automated warning on his computer screen that says funds will be sent out of the bank. Do you want to continue? He clicks yes. There go the payments - all done.

CHILDS: And then the next morning at 9 am, the contractor in India is looking over the bank's transactions from the day before, as usual, when suddenly he's like, oh, no. He emails the guy in Delaware. The guy in Delaware chats his supervisor. And he's like, the $900 million that we had to fake pay off yesterday - bad news. It was maybe real paid off. The entire $900 million had been sent to the lenders. Every lender had gotten repaid their share. So the full balance of the loan - repaid by mistake three years early.

DOHERTY: The six eyes had missed checking two little boxes. They had made a tiny, huge mistake. And this isn't Revlon's money. Revlon doesn't have $900 million sitting in cash at Citibank. This is Citibank's money. And if there's one thing a bank should do, if banks have one existential imperative, it is to keep money - to not accidentally give it away.


CHILDS: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Mary Childs, and today I am joined by Katherine Doherty from Bloomberg News, who reported the bejesus out of this story. Hi, Katherine Doherty.

DOHERTY: Hi, Mary.

CHILDS: So today on the show, what happens when one of the biggest banks in the entire world accidentally sends $900 million to the exact wrong people and tries to get it back?

DOHERTY: What started as a catty fight between lender and borrower and became the most ridiculous and notorious story on Wall Street actually tells us a lot about who has power in finance right now.


CHILDS: In finance, mistaken payments happen actually all the time - not on this scale maybe, but of course, they happen. The Delaware guy at Citibank is one of millions of people pushing millions of buttons every day. Sometimes they're bound to push the wrong one. And it's sort of understood the thing to do is send it back because all these players - the banks, the lenders and the companies - they're all doing business with each other all the time. And it's, like, today, it's this guy in Delaware's a bad day, but tomorrow, it could be yours. So everyone thought they knew what would happen.

ELISABETH DE FONTENAY: My reaction was similar to pretty much everyone out there in the financial markets.

CHILDS: Elisabeth de Fontenay is a professor at Duke University's law school, and she used to be a corporate lawyer.

DE FONTENAY: I thought, that's amazing. That's a huge oops. Someone had a very, very bad day, but it will get fixed.

CHILDS: Right. And when this happens between banks and regular people, it definitely gets fixed.

DE FONTENAY: When payments are made, for example, from banks to individuals like all of us in error, we have to give it back. And in fact, if we don't give it back, the banks actually will come after you. They will sue you, and sometimes they will bring criminal cases against you.

CHILDS: So the next day after the mistaken payment, around 2:30 p.m., Citibank sends a notice to the lenders who've gotten the money. Please return the principal portion of the payment you received as soon as possible.

DOHERTY: And one by one, the lenders do start sending the mistaken payment back - a couple million here, 10 million there. And at 6 p.m., Citibank sends another notice. You were overpaid. Please return the amount listed below as soon as possible.

CHILDS: And again, a few more payments come in, but it's slow - like, alarmingly slow. Citi starts calling the lenders. They send out another notice and then another to say, actually, that was our money. You have to send it back, like, legally.

DOHERTY: But some of the hedge funds seem to be digging in. They're not returning the money, and some of them aren't even returning Citi's calls. One fund tells Citi they're thinking about it. One fund says they will circle back, and Citibank never hears from them again. One of them says they weren't sure the money was sent in error, and one of them tells the bank to please stop harassing us.

CHILDS: And the reason these lenders are acting so cagey and weird is because this is part of a longer running saga. For them, getting this money is actually kind of a karmic miracle.

DOHERTY: Back when the lenders first lent Revlon the money in 2016, things at Revlon were fine. Revlon was in the middle of buying another beauty brand. In the press release about the acquisition, they used words like iconic and Christina Aguilera.

CHILDS: But Revlon's business started to struggle. It missed a bunch of trends like TikTok, make-up tutorials and all of beauty YouTube. It was losing relevance, not iconic. People started speculating it may have to file for bankruptcy eventually, like it wasn't going to be able to pay back all of its loans.

DOHERTY: But if you're a struggling company, there are things you can do with your loans that help you fail more slowly. So that's what Revlon started doing, like stripping out the collateral from some loans, pitting lenders against each other. It gets really complicated, but that's kind of the point. All of this loan stuff gets shady. The super complicated, multi-step transaction that Citibank had to do where they made this mistake in the first place - that was because of all of these loan shenanigans.

CHILDS: So the lenders are watching Revlon pull all these shenanigans, watching Citibank help them do it, and they're not happy. To them, Revlon is breaking promises and stealing from them. They're still getting these little interest payments, but those are nothing compared to the whole loan. It's seemingly less and less likely that these lenders are ever going to get paid back anything close to the full amount. So they start organizing as a group and hire some lawyers and get ready to fight.

DOHERTY: And then August 11, 2020, the money magically appears. So the way they tell it, they're like, oh, well, great. Problem solved. Maybe someone gave Revlon new money, and they just repaid this loan. Thank you so much. So when they get that first notice from Citibank saying it was a terrible mistake, they're like, wait, what? They call their lawyers.

BOB LOIGMAN: My name is Bob Loigman, and I'm a partner at Quinn Emanuel.

BEN FINESTONE: And my name is Ben Finestone. I'm also a partner at Quinn Emanuel.

CHILDS: The lenders themselves declined our interview request, but they gave us Bob and Ben. Quinn Emanuel, the law firm, is litigation only, which means they only do fights. Bob and Ben are basically brawlers.

FINESTONE: Putting aside the fact that Bob and I have already told you that we're the best in the business at litigating, clients - they don't want to hire us to litigate necessarily. The first thing we do is try to convince the other side not to do what they're threatening to do.

CHILDS: But sometimes you got to fight. So Bob and Ben find this case from 30 years earlier in New York State, an argument for why their clients, the lenders, can totally keep the money.

FINESTONE: ...Case called Banque Worms. It's a European bank, and the founder of that bank was someone named Hypolite Worms. So it's called Banque Worms.

CHILDS: This French bank named after Hypolite Worms - I don't know - had lent money out and accidentally gotten paid back. And they wanted to keep the money, and the New York court said, yeah, it's your money. You can keep it because you had no reason to believe that this was a mistake.

FINESTONE: The law presumes the recipient of the money to say, I know why I got this money. It's on account of the debt that I'm owed. It's not just money falling out of the sky. It's money that was paid to me because I lent this same exact money to somebody.

CHILDS: Bob and Ben's clients, the lenders who got the mistaken payment and kept it - they're like, oh, yeah, that's exactly what happened to us.

LOIGMAN: The money expressly says, this is payment for your Revlon debt. The payment matches the Revlon debt to the penny.

DOHERTY: So when they receive a chunk of money in the exact amount that they were owed, it's like, why would they ever just assume that Citibank accidentally sent them exactly what they were owed? And Bob and Ben say you can't just go around double-checking every single repayment you get. If suddenly that's what we have to do, the whole financial system will basically grind to a halt.

FINESTONE: One of the premises that this law is based on is ensuring that every time people receive money, that you don't have to shut things down and start investigating whether or not the bank that sent you the money might have made a mistake when there's no reason to think that a mistake occurred.

CHILDS: In the financial world, people are still like, OK, Bob and Ben found a pretty compelling argument, but surely a one-billion-dollar mistake can get fixed, right?


CHILDS: Right? Especially if it's a big giant bank, they'll have to give the money back. After the break - but will they?


CHILDS: So Citi really wants their money back. But more than that, they're worried about the ripple effects because $900 million is bad, but if they can't get the money back this time, they might not be able to get the money back next time there's a mistake. This could get way more expensive very fast.

DOHERTY: And meanwhile, the lenders are like, thanks so much for giving me my money back. I will be keeping it. So Citibank and Bob and Ben - they all go to court to lay out their version of what happened. In December, the six eyes tell the court their side of the story. The lenders tell theirs. And in February, Judge Jesse Furman of the Southern District of New York rules in favor of Bob and Ben and their Banque Worms precedent. Their clients can keep the money.

CHILDS: It was kind of shocking, especially to Neal Katyal.

NEAL KATYAL: I was reading the newspaper, and I read about this case, and I was like, wait a minute, this can't possibly be America.

CHILDS: Neal is a lawyer, kind of a celebrity lawyer. He's the former U.S. acting solicitor general, and he has argued 44 cases before the Supreme Court, which is a lot. He sees that Citibank lost this case, and he's like, oh, I have got to get involved.

KATYAL: I hadn't really worked with Citi before, but I called up the general counsel and said, you know, to extent you want any additional legal help, this is one I really care about. You know, I'm doing it for free if you want 'cause it's so ridiculous.

DOHERTY: Wait, you called Citi, and you were like, put me in, coach?

KATYAL: That's almost literally it, actually, because, you know, I basically - I called him up, and I said, you know, I'd love to help. And then they slotted me in.

DOHERTY: To be clear, Neal is not actually doing this pro bono. Citibank was more than happy to pay for his help.

CHILDS: So Citi slots him in, and they appeal this court decision. And Neal is like, all due respect, the judge's decision was wrong. He completely missed the point because under the Banque Worms ruling, the recipient has to truly believe that the payment was on purpose and not a mistake. And Neal says in Revlon's case, the lenders had plenty of reasons to suspect, to know that this was a mistake. Like, the money wasn't due for another three years.

KATYAL: I think the most fundamental point is if money arrives like this in anyone's bank account, they would ask the simple question, hey, what is this money doing here?

CHILDS: So they're kind of saying gently in a lawyer way that they're being a little squirrelly and reaching for, like, any precedent that might let them keep the money.

KATYAL: Beautiful. Yes, that's the technical legal term, squirrely. Our fundamental theme in this case is exactly that. You know, mistakes happen in any area, whether it's, you know, financial or government or the bench or whatever. And our legal system is never such that says, oh, you make a mistake - everyone's stuck with it. Of course, not. The question then is what do you do about the mistake?

DOHERTY: Neal argument is that taking Banque Worms seriously obscures a fundamental and, like, intuitive truth. When someone gives you money by accident, it isn't your money.

KATYAL: Like, the normal thing is like if, you know, I miswired a billion dollars to you, you would give it back, right? I mean, you know, that's...


KATYAL: Yeah, I think you would. I'm going to go out on a limb.


KATYAL: (Laughter).

DOHERTY: By the way, if someone accidentally wired me a billion dollars, you would never hear from me again, especially if that was my own money that I had lent out to that someone, which is why Bob and Ben say that comparison isn't right. Why should I have to investigate whether they actually meant to pay me the money they owed me?

The court is supposed to hear Citibank's oral arguments for the appeal sometime in the next few months. Bob and Ben will continue to argue why the ruling was correct. Elisabeth, the law professor, wrote a brief for the court in support of Citibank's argument. But she also thinks all this back and forth is not helpful.

DE FONTENAY: We can't just keep having "The Hunger Games" out there with these totally vicious attacks and counterattacks and then completely unexpected results when we end up in court.

DOHERTY: Elisabeth says this whole case is emblematic of a larger shift that's been happening in finance.

DE FONTENAY: I think this is really momentous in the sense that it really epitomizes the kind of war of all against all that we're starting to see in the debt markets, even in the financial markets. There have always been some pretty strong norms of behavior. But it feels like, especially in the last, let's say, five years, those few remaining norms have all gone out the window.

CHILDS: She says finance is stabbier (ph) more than ever - stabbier than in the financial crisis, stabbier than in the greed-is-good era of the 1980s. Just look at what happened to the lenders who gave the money back to Citibank when they sent those emails asking so nicely.

DE FONTENAY: The people who were cooperative and who were trying to do the right thing - ultimately, they get punished because this massive amount of money went out the door to the lenders who were jerks and held on to the cash. And the ones who did the right thing - they don't get anything.

DOHERTY: At the same time, it's not really about doing the right thing because even the lenders who gave that money back, they were acting out of self-interest, too. They got to preserve their relationship with Citibank. And Citi is already threatening to lock the lenders who kept the money out of future deals.

CHILDS: Citi's trying to throw its weight around, which makes sense because, for a long time, banking worked kind of like a country club. There were just a few powerful banks. And if you offended them, they'd freeze you out. So sometimes, you'd let mistakes go because, in the long run, you'd make more money.

DOHERTY: But in the past couple of decades, the whole financial system has gotten way more fractured. A smaller percentage of money is flowing through those old, big-time banks now. There are other people doing banking things under all kinds of names - hedge funds, private equity, money managers - which means that relationships with each individual bank are less important. Banks are still huge and powerful, but they have less power than they used to.

And if you're in a world where you're going to have to deal with the same small groups of banks or companies or people forever, it's not in your self-interest to screw them over and take the money now because they'll never work with you again, and you'll lose in the long run. But the bigger the world gets and the more people and companies there are, the more appealing it becomes to say, screw you. I don't care if we never work together again. I'm keeping the money.


DOHERTY: Did you accidentally upend the gentlemen's agreements that underpin the financial world? Call us - We are on all the social media platforms - @planetmoney. This episode was produced by Darius Rafieyan, mastered by Gilly Moon and edited by Sara Sarasohn and Liza Yeager. Alex Goldmark is our supervising producer. I'm Katherine Doherty.

CHILDS: And I'm Mary Childs. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.

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