Mike O’Neill

  • 24 Apr 2013 at 6:52 PM

Citigroup Lookin’ Pretty Good To Citigroup Chairman

Mr. O’Neill, meanwhile, told shareholders that the main work in shrinking Citi has been done. “Look at the performance of Citicorp: It’s quite respectable,” he said about the division that is Citi’s core lending and capital markets business. “We have the makings here of a very attractive company,” he said. [WSJ]

O’Neill…joined the Citigroup board in 2009, became chairman this year and has played an increasingly powerful role, as most vividly shown by his ousting of Vikram Pandit as chief executive in October, after months of tension. O’Neill, who hand-picked new CEO Michael Corbat, has an uphill task ahead of him. Citigroup is groaning under $171 billion of assets it wants to shed, has high expenses, and its profitability lags behind that of such competitors as JPMorgan Chase & Co. And O’Neill faces the same question that kept him from being a contender for the Citigroup CEO spot: while he can fix a smaller bank, can he revamp a behemoth as complicated as Citigroup? O’Neill, who declined to comment for this story through a spokesman, has provided some clues about his plan to turn the bank around. On a conference call with investors the day that Pandit stepped down, he said that he will follow his typical playbook. A dozen people who have worked with O’Neill over the years say that plan usually involves the ruthless pruning of underperforming operations and deciding which ones are worth additional investment. [Reuters]

The Times’s detailed story today on Citi’s deVikrafication is a fun read and adds a lot of information about Mike O’Neill’s coup and its aftermath, but I submit to you that if you found any of it surprising you need to pay more, or probably much less, attention to the conventions of corporate infighting. I pay a medium amount of attention, and the day the news came out I conjectured:

  • the board was planning to fire Pandit for a while but made the final decision after the earnings release,
  • then it fired him, though “fired” = more or less forced his resignation,
  • and this was part of a play for more power by O’Neill, the non-executive chairman,
  • and this would likely demoralize other executives because nice things are nicer than nasty ones and a cushy banking sinecure is nicer than Hobbesian war for P&L and efficiency.1

So that’s pretty much what the Times piece today reveals.2 I would pat myself on the back except, was anyone peddling an alternative explanation?3 Well, Citi, I guess, but come on. The notion that Vikram Pandit left Citi of his own initiative, the day after earnings, with no warning, is so absurd on its face that the fact that Citi and Pandit said that he didn’t doesn’t even qualify as a lie. The call on which O’Neill said “Vikram chose to submit his resignation and the board accepted it. Contrary to speculation, no strategic or regulatory or operating issue precipitated the resignation” so clearly meant “we fired the dude because we didn’t like him” that O’Neill shouted at Mike Mayo “Our statement is clear.”

It was! There is precisely one way to read it! That’s the kind of faint-praise statement you make if you fired someone because you didn’t like him but he wasn’t, like, cooking and eating security guards on company property. The statement where he actually chooses to resign – from an unlimited choice set as opposed to “resign or be fired” – looks very different. It comes on the earnings call, for one thing.

You can manufacture outrage about this in various ways. Henry Blodget and Fox Business think that Citi’s characterization of the ouster was fraudulent and/or is being investigated by the SEC; you can add salt to taste, but Blodget has some points here: Read more »

There’s a thing called “corporate governance” which you might think means like “the practice of running a corporation in a good way instead of a bad way” but you would be wrong. You can tell because the consensus is that Citi has displayed good corporate governance by making a chaotic demoralizing mess of firing Vikram Pandit in disgrace and/or regretfully accepting his voluntary resignation and/or other. Here’s Felix Salmon:

The CEO’s job is to run the bank, to answer to the board, and to get fired if he doesn’t perform. Which is what seems to have happened with Pandit.

Meanwhile, further downtown, the exact opposite is happening. Where Citi’s powerful board acted decisively after yet another set of weak results, Goldman’s powerless board is simply sitting back and watching their bank report a much more solid set of earnings

[W]hile investors care about earnings first and foremost, they also want to know that they’ll ultimately receive those earnings, rather than just seeing them disappear into the pockets of management, or be wasted on silly acquisitions. Governance matters. And on that front, if on few others, Citi can credibly claim to be leagues ahead of Goldman.

I say unto you that one or the other of these statements can be true, but not both:

  • “Governance matters.”
  • “on that front, if on few others, Citi can credibly claim to be leagues ahead of Goldman.”

Read more »