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Simon Johnson

Simon Johnson

Posted: March 4, 2010 09:30 AM

Questions For Mr. Pandit

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Today, perhaps following our earlier recommendation, Mr. Vikram Pandit -- CEO of Citigroup -- will appear before the congressional oversight panel for TARP. (Official website, with streamed hearing from 10am).

This is an important opportunity because, if you want to expose the hubris, mismanagement, and executive incompetence -- let's face it -- Citi is the low hanging fruit.

Citibank (and its successors) has been at the center of every major episode of irresponsible exuberance since the 1970s and has essentially failed -- i.e., became insolvent by any reasonable definition and had to be saved -- at least four times in the past 30 years (1982, 1989-91, 1998, and 2008-09).

In the last iteration, Citi was guided by Robert Rubin -- self-styled guru of the markets and sage of Washington, a man who likes to exude "expect the unexpected" mystique -- directly onto the iceberg at full speed.

Mr. Pandit was brought in by Mr. Rubin to refloat the wreckage, despite the fact that he had no prior experience managing a major global bank. Mr. Pandit's hedge fund was acquired by Citi and then promptly shutdown. And Mr. Pandit's big plan for restructuring the most consistently unsuccessful bank -- from society's point of view -- in the history of global finance: Reduce the headcount from around 375,000 to 300,000.

Here are five questions the FCIC should ask. This line of inquiry may seem a bit personal, but it is time to talk directly about the people, procedures, and philosophy behind such awful enterprises.

  1. As far as anyone can judge, Mr. Pandit, you are completely unqualified to restructure and run a disaster prone global bank. Can you please explain in detail how you got the job?
  2. Your hedge fund. Old Lane Partners, was closed by Citi in June 2008. Please elaborate on why it was closed, including how much money you lost on what kinds of securities. (Hint: follow the NYT through the sad story.)
  3. Please review for us the details of your promised compensation package and how much you have actually received -- including cash, deferred compensation, stocks, and perks (including executive jet travel, valued at market rates); do not forget your chunk of the Old Lane deal. How much taxpayer money has been injected into Citi and on what basis?
  4. Of course, as you understand full well, the true cost to society of Citi's misdeeds is vastly more than the direct taxpayer injections of capital. Please tell us - as specifically as you can - what other burdens Citi has generated for the rest of us. (Hint: there is a right answer here, which includes more than 8 million jobs lost since December 2007, a 30-40 percent increase in net government debt held by the private sector, and much higher taxes for everyone in the future.)
  5. Mr. Pandit, your proposed restructuring plans simply make no sense; there is nothing you have put on the table that would reduce the risks posed by Citi to the national interests of the United States. Even John Reed, the man who built Citi as a global brand, now says that it should be disbanded. There is no evidence - and I mean absolutely none - for economies of scale in banks over100bn in total assets. Richard Fisher, head of the Dallas Fed, calls for immediate action on this front; please explain to us why the Fed should not move immediately to apply his recommendations to Citi - surely, the safety and soundness of the financial system is on the line.

And if Mr. Pandit replies, in response to point 5, "you need Citi because other countries have large banks," he should be laughed out of court. Just because other countries do things badly and refuse to address their underlying issues has never stopped the United States from fixing its problems. The basis of this republic is our ability and our right to govern ourselves.

We should thank Mr. Pandit and his colleagues at Citi for their service and move immediately to break up the bank - just as our predecessors thanked Mr. Rockefeller and broke up Standard Oil in 1911.

Cross-posted from The Baseline Scenario.