Citigroup Inc.'s plan to profit from growth in foreign markets may put Chief Executive Officer Vikram Pandit at odds with the U.S. government's stated interest in curbing risk and stoking the domestic economy with loans.
Pandit, 52, said in a June 15 speech in Detroit that Citigroup is looking for gains "away from credit creation and the U.S. consumer" by "harnessing globalization." The Treasury Department and Federal Reserve cited "market stability" and the need for "credit flows to households and businesses" as reasons for injecting $45 billion of bailout funds last year into the New York banking company.
The Treasury would become Citigroup's biggest shareholder in September with a 34% stake under a preferred-stock conversion, so Pandit may have a hard time selling his plan. With a low stock price and analysts forecasting the bank will post a second-quarter operating loss, it probably isn't the time to focus overseas, said Matt McCormick, a money manager at Bahl & Gaynor Inc. in Cincinnati.
"It sounds great on paper to have foreign operations and revenue streams," said McCormick, a banking industry specialist whose firm oversees $2.2 billion and doesn't own Citigroup shares. "But Joe Six-Pack is going to look at this and say, 'Why in the world aren't we focused on something that's going to benefit the U.S. taxpayer directly?' "
Pandit said in an interview with PBS' Charlie Rose last November that Citigroup will emerge from the financial crisis as a "high-end retail bank" serving "clients that need our globality."
He said in the Detroit speech that he expects slow U.S. economic growth in coming years because Americans are saving more and borrowing less. That means Citigroup must use profits from its global banking network, especially in emerging markets, to restore its health, he said. "As every businessperson knows, the best way to repay debt is to earn your way out of it," Pandit said.
Citigroup was weakened by loan losses in the 1980s following sovereign debt defaults in Latin America. Citigroup predecessor Citicorp reported $2.2 billion of losses in Argentina after a debt default and currency devaluation.
The company is "a beast that nobody seems to know how to control and going back 30 years has repeatedly been at the forefront of massive losses around the world," said Simon Johnson, professor of entrepreneurship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management in Cambridge, Mass. "If I build a company that has great benefits to the country but also great potential or actual costs, those things have to be weighed."
Pandit declined an interview request. Stephen Cohen, a spokesman for Citigroup, declined to comment.