Citigroup caught everybody off guard this week, when its board announced it had asked for the sudden resignation of CEO Vikram Pandit. Or did it catch anybody off guard? Was this a gesture investors pushed for?
Was it the right move for the big global financial institution that seemed to have leaped a hurdle to move beyond the darkest days of the financial crisis--back when there were moments when many thought its survival was in jeopardy?
Over the past few years, Pandit and team took appropriate, bold steps to make the behemoth profitable again. They sold assets en masse. They shuffled bad, non-performing, defaulted, bankrupt, and/or foreclosed assets into a special holding company and, little by little, sold off these positions, properties, securities and full operations. By doing so, it rid itself of spoiled segments and began to polish ongoing core operations. They downsized in every way possible--in just about every unit, operation, division, and geography. They finally sold its stake in the brokerage joint venture with Morgan Stanley (although at a large loss).
Earnings, too, had improved. In the days before Pandit's exit, Citigroup announced third-quarter income of over $460 million (somewhat misleading because of a handful of accounting adjustments banks are permitted or forced to do) and has boosted its equity capital base to over $185 billion. Returns on its capital base throughout 2012 have hovered between 5-8 percent-not stellar, but much better than the debilitating losses of years ago.
With regulators showing their hands in all aspects of its business and that capital structure, Citi has cooperated, even when it desperately wanted to resume paying a dividend to shareholders. Growing leaner, it felt comfortable settling in as the third or fourth largest bank in the U.S., below the first-place perch it had held for many years.
Pandit and team had unraveled the mammoth financial-services empire Sandy Weill and his own team constructed throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. Yet the board, under chairman Michael O'Neill, behind the scenes had been huddling to plan a Pandit departure. It appears Pandit had little clue.
Why then would a CEO who followed the marching orders of both government regulators and a corporate board be told his time is up?
Impatience with the stock price is always a reason. Over Pandit's five-year stint, shares of Citi have fallen 80 percent and more, even though share price is up 10-12 percent in 2012. The market may have appreciated the bank's revival, but perceived that the clean-up, the reengineering, and the resumption of basic banking aren't complete. The market perceived that other thorns or problems might still remain hidden in operations and haven't been resolved, sold off or at least shoved into the Citi Holdings, the special entity that corrals all the "bad assets" and prepares them for sale.
Investors and the board applaud Citi for separating out the bad assets. But the bad assets still reside with Citi and must be maintained, grappled with and funded. The board may have been pushing for Pandit hard to get rid of them with more urgency and haste--if only to present a new, cleaner, "de-risked," and unrestrained Citi. The bad assets of Citi Holdings remain as a scar on its overall balance sheet and a stinging reminder of the crisis.
Shareholders also seem to covet their dividends. Banks traditionally have rewarded their owners with a regular, comfortable stream of dividends. Pandit this past year felt financial improvements warranted Citi resuming paying a dividend; however, Citi sparred with regulators, who vetoed the move. Dividend-loving shareholders appear to have blamed Pandit for not making the improvements quickly enough to result in dividends or share repurchases to help give a jolt to the stock price.
Investors and the board, too, are likely peeking at the performance of peers, the other big banks (Goldman Sachs, Wachovia, and JPMorgan Chase, e.g.) that seem to have rebounded far more swiftly. Citi has escaped the starting blocks, but runs several strides behind the others.
Years ago, Pandit arrived at Citi after his stint at Morgan Stanley and after selling his hedge fund to Citi. He rose to become its CEO when previous CEO Charles Prince was pushed out when the public learned about Citi's crashing values of mortgage securities and mortgage-related structures. Pandit had been a successful fund manager. Re-juggling portfolios of assets, restructuring balance sheets and assessing the values of trading positions summarize Pandit's experiences and skills.
Citi is now at a pivotal point. Shareholders dream of 10-percent returns on capital and new respect in the banking community. And the board appears to have assessed that Pandit lacked expertise and deep experience in the trenches off basic banking: operations, branches, systems and technology, corporate lending, deposit taking, cash management, and custody. It needed a new leader that knew as much about the profitability of retail branches and the costs of doing money transfers as about valuing derivatives and mortgage securities.
So it tapped Michael Corbat, a long-time Citi banker with broad experiences in sales and trading, wealth management and international operations. In fact, board chairman O'Neill phrased it as something like a different horse for a different course. The board is pronouncing the restructuring phase as over, and it is time for Citi to become what it wants to be--large, omnipresent, global, familiar to all, yet simpler, basic, stable with boring, steady profits, 10-percent returns (at least) and, yes, quarterly dividend payments to owners.
CFN: Richard Parsons and Citi, 2012
CFN: Morgan Stanley Progress Report, 2012
CFN: Moody's Downgrades Big Banks, 2012