Already a Bloomberg.com user?
Sign in with the same account.
Citigroup's new chief executive embraces the do-it-all strategy, rejecting calls for a breakup
Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit has made up his mind: The world's largest bank will remain intact. After months of speculation, the new chief has rejected calls for a breakup. "You couldn't design a better footprint or get a better set of assets if you had to build a bank from scratch," Pandit told BusinessWeek. "This is clearly the right model."
Pandit's ringing endorsement of an all-in-one financial-services company may test the patience of weary investors, who worry that Citi (C) is too big to manage or grow. Citi's first-quarter profits, which will be announced on Apr. 18, won't quell those concerns: The bank faces billions of dollars in additional writedowns from the mortgage mess. "Let's be clear, the earnings report is going to be ugly," says William T. Fitzpatrick, an equity analyst at Optique Capital Management. "The numbers are anybody's guess."
When Pandit took the helm on Dec. 11, he vowed to make "an objective and dispassionate review" of the company. Now after spending the first 130 days of his tenure "pressure-testing" more than 50 different units, Pandit remains committed to four global groups—cash management services, investment banking, wealth management, and credit cards. Some contingents had reasoned that Citi would be better off without investment banking or U.S. credit cards. Pandit argues those businesses are critical to the bank's strategy of selling financial products all along the banking food chain from companies to consumers. "It's no longer the model in question now. It's the execution," says the 51-year-old Pandit. "Everybody before me has wrestled with that."
As Pandit sees it, Citi's international businesses will be integral to his vision. He considers the bank a global powerhouse with unrivaled reach. But in the past, he says, the different units often operated independently without a worldwide perspective. To help address that problem, Pandit has added chiefs for each region.
Pandit's conclusions come as the result of intense discussions not only with new executives but with former chiefs such as his predecessor Charles O. Prince. Pandit has also conferred with John Reed, credited for pushing the bank further into international markets, and Sanford I. Weill, the primary architect behind Citi's universal bank model. Says Don Callahan, Citi's new chief administrative officer: "You have to understand the history of the place to go forward."
Of course, Citigroup will need cash to do that. The bank has already raised $30 billion from outside investors to help shore up its balance sheet. Pandit says he can easily find more funds by getting rid of ancillary assets. For example, he's netted nearly $1 billion by cashing out some shares of the newly public Visa (V), trimming Citi's stake in Brazilian credit-card processor Redecard, and selling bank branches in the U.S. and abroad, among other moves. "Citi has collected a few more things than it should have," says Pandit.
Meanwhile, he plans to trim Citi's portfolio of home loans by $45 billion and offload some $12 billion worth of leveraged loans. The bank will likely do so at a loss, but the sales will free up capital. And despite mounting writedowns, money manager Robert A. Olstein figures Citi—the top holding in his $2.1 billion mutual fund—still can earn a decent profit over the next two rocky years given its diversified model.
Leaner and Meaner
Pandit's recent moves will buy Citi time. But if he wants the model to work, Pandit may need to cut costs drastically. By at least one measure, Citi remains woefully inefficient: Its sales per employee stand at $218,000, vs. $349,000 for rival JPMorgan Chase (JPM). Since last spring, Citi has announced it would cut its workforce by 10%, or 30,200. Pandit hopes to chop the annual budget further by centralizing certain companywide operations such as technology and human resources. Critics claim that won't be enough. "What I'm looking for is an all-out assault on the bloated cost structure," says an analyst.
Whatever cuts Pandit ends up making, he's focusing more resources on high-level talent. He's hired a former human resources manager from computer maker Dell to head up talent management. Pandit plans to revamp compensation and how the company doles out promotions.
From the outset, Pandit was also aware that he needed to overhaul the bank's oversight. To that end, he's built a new risk management team, staffed with outsiders, including many from his former employer, Morgan Stanley (MS). Among them: Brian Leach, one of the six advisers who helped liquidate the assets of Long Term Capital Management, the hedge fund that collapsed in 1998.
The 14-member board, which has come under fire for Citi's risky subprime securities and off-balance maneuvers, may get a face-lift as well. All of the directors are up for election at the annual meeting on Apr. 22. Citi has said it is looking for replacements, namely new directors "with a particular emphasis on expertise in finance and investments." Some anticipate drastic changes. "There's going to be a shakeup," says Peter Kovalski, a bank analyst for the Alpine mutual fund group. "I hear they are going to get rid of the deadwood—the friends of [former CEOs] Prince or Weill who were just there for the status and paycheck."
If Pandit had decided to split up Citi, the timing wouldn't have been auspicious. After all, financial assets aren't fetching a high price these days. Based on conservative estimates by Chad Brand of Peridot Capital Management, the breakup value of Citigroup is around $22 a share—roughly in line with today's price. "I'm not sure this is the market you'd want to sell something in anyway," says Robert Manieri, an analyst with Cleveland-based Victory Capital. "But I'll be happy to know they've considered everything. I just want to hear they have a plan."
Pandit's decision does help lift a cloud of uncertainty that's been hanging over the company for quite a while. "Management is trying to right the ship," says Kovalski. "It's going to be some years before they get the returns, but they are going in the right direction."