Vikram Pandit knows a thing or two about fees — he ran a hedge fund and led Citigroup Inc. as the world's biggest credit card lender. Now he's switched sides and wants to help people avoid them.
Three years after Pandit was ousted as chief executive officer of Citigroup, he's back as an investor with a venture called FeeX Inc.. His role, announced Tuesday, is to help the startup expose the kinds of "hidden" fees big financial institutions charge for everything from credit cards to life insurance and retirement accounts.
"It's sort of saying, 'Gee I found out about all those fees that Citigroup charges to take advantage of their customers, and now I'm helping this company tell customers how to avoid all those fees,'" said Art Wilmarth, a George Washington University law professor.
Pandit declined to be interviewed through his spokeswoman, Shannon Bell.
Since leaving Citigroup, Pandit has taken an interest in making financial services more affordable or available to a larger swath of consumers, investing in at least 10 startups.
The latest comes at an awkward time. In July, Citi was punished by federal regulators for selling expensive and often unnecessary add-on products to credit-card customers during Pandit's tenure and beyond. The bank was ordered to pay $700 million to customers and fined $70 million for practices that occurred between 2000 and February 2013.
Pandit served as Citi's CEO during the global financial crisis, taking the job in late 2007 and leaving five years later, when directors concluded he had mismanaged operations and lost credibility with investors. As he oversaw government bailouts stemming from losses tied to the crisis, the bank's stock plunged 90 percent.
Pandit is making his investments now with a personal fortune amassed during a 25-year career on Wall Street.
After leaving Morgan Stanley in 2005, Pandit started hedge fund Old Lane Partners LP, which he then sold to Citigroup in 2007 for $800 million. Pandit received about $165 million from the purchase and in late 2007 he was named to the New York-based bank's top job. As Citigroup's CEO, he later shut down Old Lane, taking a $202 million writedown.
Pandit's stakes generally aren't in companies that offer competing bank products or services. From CommonBond Inc. and Fundbox Ltd., which offer cheaper financing to students and small businesses, to NerdWallet Inc. and FeeX, which seek to help consumers make tough financial decisions and expose fees, the firms promise to offer greater transparency and information.
"There's this mindset that Wall Street "creates complexity to obscure costs, and technology — especially disruptive technology — has the benefit of democratizing investment decisions," said Micah Hauptman, financial services counsel at the Consumer Federation of America. "There are going to be a lot of firms that are forced to compete based on cost and quality."
When he's not advising startups or looking for new investments, Pandit serves as chairman of TGG Group, a consulting firm founded on the principles of behavioral economics.
For his FeeX investment he joined a group called Collaborative Fund that provided $2.75 million to the three- year-old company.
"We hope to draw on his extensive expertise," said Yoav Zurel, the FeeX CEO.