Vikram Pandit steps down as Citigroup CEO

Vikram Pandit abruptly stepped down as CEO of Citigroup on Tuesday, surprising Wall Street, after steering the bank through the 2008 financial crisis and the choppy years that followed.

Pandit’s replacement, effective immediately, is Michael Corbat, who had been CEO of Citigroup’s Europe, Middle East and Africa division, the bank said. Corbat has worked at Citi and its predecessors since he graduated from Harvard in 1983, it said.

Pandit will also relinquish his seat on Citi’s board of directors. A second top executive also resigned as part of the shake-up: President and Chief Operating Officer John Havens, who also served as CEO of Citi’s Institutional Client Group.

The news shocked Wall Street, a day after the bank easily beat analyst expectations for its quarterly earnings. Investors sent the stock price to its highest level since early April.

Citigroup offered no explanation for the sudden departures.

Pandit is credited with slimming the bank by selling businesses, removing it from government ownership after a bailout in 2008 and righting its balance sheet after billions in losses on bad mortgage investments made before he took the helm.

Today, Citi is the country’s third-largest bank, with $1.9 trillion in assets, according to the Federal Reserve. It trails only JPMorgan Chase, with $2.3 trillion, and Bank of America, with $2.1 trillion.

But Pandit’s massive pay packages have raised the ire of investors. Some in government believed the bank was too slow to address its problems as they emerged in the months before the crisis caught fire in September 2008.

In March 2009, as the crisis raged, President Barack Obama ordered the Treasury Department to consider breaking up Citigroup and removing its executives, according to a behind-the-scenes book about the crisis published last year by journalist Ron Suskind.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner ignored Obama’s request, according to Suskind’s account. Geithner and the White House have disputed his version of events.

Pandit had another opponent in Sheila Bair, an influential bank regulator who ran the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. during the crisis. Bair wanted the government to fire Pandit after it extended billions in bailouts and guarantees to his company. Geithner disagreed, and Pandit kept his job.

In an interview with CNBC Tuesday after Pandit’s departure was announced, Bair said Citigroup has lacked “a clear strategic direction and focus” under his watch, and said shareholders are unhappy.

She said the bank would benefit from a CEO with commercial banking experience, as opposed to Pandit’s background in investment banking, and that the move would be beneficial for shareholders.

Daniel Alpert, managing partner at the New York investment bank Westwood Capital Partners LLC, said Pandit had done “pretty much all he can do to turn the bank around.”

He said it will be hard for big banks to boost their share prices because of intense pressure from regulators to simplify their businesses.

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