WASHINGTON — With chief executives from eight of the top financial institutions sitting shoulder to shoulder before a panel of lawmakers angry over how the firms have spent billions of government aid, it was Vikram Pandit, Citigroup Inc.'s CEO, who stood out.
Mr. Pandit was often the first to volunteer to answer questions. He announced that he had agreed to slash his annual compensation to $1, and he apologized for wasteful spending after taking government money.
He was also quick to accept that bankers must work to regain the public's trust.
"The world is changing very fast, and we need to acknowledge and embrace this new world very quickly," Mr. Pandit told the House Financial Services Committee. "We did not adjust quickly enough to this new world, and I take responsibility for that mistake. We need to do a better job of acknowledging and embracing the new realities. Let me be clear with the committee — I get the new reality and will make sure Citi gets it."
In many ways Citi, along with Bank of America Corp., had the most to lose at Wednesday's hearing. Both firms have received two massive cash infusions from the government, as well as hundreds of billions in loan-loss guarantees.
After news reports surfaced that Citi was planning to buy a new $50 million private jet, the company was easy prey for lawmakers frustrated over the lack of improvement since October, when they authorized a $700 billion rescue fund for the industry.
But if Mr. Pandit was nervous, he did not show it. In contrast with other witnesses, he appeared at ease in answering questions, and at one point he tried to help his toughest questioner, Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., as she probed whether bankers were charging the government improper fees for its assistance.
He also scored points with Democratic lawmakers for being the sole CEO to endorse a bill that would let judges rework mortgages in bankruptcy proceedings. Citi announced last month that it had cut a deal with Senate Democrats on the bill — a move that did not sit well with other witnesses Wednesday.
In response to questions from lawmakers, James Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan Chase & Co., warned that the mortgage bankruptcy legislation could drive up mortgage rates.
Kenneth Lewis, B of A's chief executive, looked like he was more accustomed to — and more comfortable with — a boardroom setting. At one point when Rep. Waters, who has been calling servicers directly to help her constituents achieve loan modifications, complained that she has had problems getting through to B of A's loss mitigation department, she asked if it was located offshore.
Mr. Lewis stiffly adjusted his glasses and said he wasn't sure.
"If we do have a loss mitigation office offshore — I do not know that we do," he said.
Rep. Waters took that to mean that they do. "Thanks, so you do have it offshore," she said sarcastically.
Mr. Lewis tried again. "I don't know. I just know that it has 5,000" employees.
Later when Rep. Waters asked B of A and Citi about fees they are charging for taking Tarp money, Mr. Lewis looked baffled.
"I don't know what you are talking about," he said.
Mr. Pandit took a stab at an answer. "If we are, we are paying underwriting fees to underwriters."
Mr. Dimon was seconded by John Stumpf, the CEO of Wells Fargo & Co., who said, "I think bankruptcy has some real negative consequences."
When asked by Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., whether Citi officials had "lost their mind" in supporting the bankruptcy bill, Lloyd Blankfein, the CEO of Goldman Sachs Group Inc., also appeared unhappy with the banking company.
"If they have, it's not because of this issue," said Mr. Blankfein, which was met with a few hushed "ooos" in the audience at the apparent slight.
Overall, the hearing was anticlimactic. Despite its unprecedented nature, it was even — at times — downright boring. Lawmakers asked mundane questions and got perfunctory answers. There just was not the level of emotion expected under the circumstances: the leaders of eight companies at the center of a historical financial meltdown.
Though several lawmakers raised concerns that bankers are not lending out the government funds they have received, and a number scolded the executives over their big paychecks, only a few lawmakers went for the jugular.
In addition to Rep. Waters, who criticized B of A's foreclosure mitigation procedures, Rep. Michael Capuano, D-Mass., compared the bankers to bank robbers.
"You created the mess we're in," Rep. Capuano said. "America doesn't trust you anymore. I don't have one single penny in any of your banks, not one, because I don't want my money put into CDOs and credit default swaps and big bonuses. Until that changes, I won't be able to trust you. Who's the person who discovered CDOs? Find him. Fire him."
True to their scripts, the CEOs kept their cool and told committee members what they wanted to hear — namely, that bankers are using money from the Troubled Asset Relief Program to lend. The CEOs did approach their testimony with varying degrees of comfort.
Mr. Dimon was straight to the point.
"JPMorgan is lending," he told the committee. "While I did not seek the $25 billion in Tarp funds our company received on Oct. 28, 2008, it has gone into our capital base, which is the foundation of all our lending activities."
Mr. Dimon said that in the fourth quarter JPMorgan Chase made over $150 billion of loans and purchased almost $60 billion of mortgage-backed and asset-backed securities, and that it will prevent 650,000 foreclosures by the end of this year.
Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank, D-Mass., asked the bankers to demonstrate they are on the taxpayer's side.
"I urge you that in going forward to behave perfectly cooperatively and understanding that these are extraordinary times. We have been taking and will be taking extraordinary measures, which will lead to the benefit of some of the institutions," he said. "There has to be a sense among the American people that you understand that and, with their frustrations, that you are willingly cooperating or are willing to make some sacrifices."
Rep. Frank also seized on Mr. Dimon's recent comments that he would like the Obama administration to adopt a uniform loan modification program soon. The legislator assured Mr. Dimon and the other bankers that Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner would be delivering on that promise in the coming weeks, and he asked the bankers to stop foreclosing until then.
"I am asking you please have a moratorium in effect until we have that program in effect," Rep. Frank said.
In response, Mr. Lewis and Mr. Pandit agreed to hold off on foreclosures, and several of the other witnesses indicated agreement.
Much of the discussion turned on how fast the banks would repay Tarp money. Several executives emphasized that the Treasury Department initially forced bankers to take the money — and that they were working as quickly as possible to repay it.
But Mr. Dimon said that repaying the money back early would be difficult, because banks are required to raise an equivalent amount of private capital — something that would be tough, given the current economic situation.
"Part of the agreement is if you pay back under three years, you replace it with equivalent capital," he said.
Rep. Frank said that for those banks that felt forced to accept Tarp dollars and now have buyer's remorse, he will remove any legal impediments to paying it back early.
"We will undo those obstacles," he said.
Several of the CEOs also said they supported efforts by Rep. Frank to create a systemic risk regulator and take other steps to streamline supervision.
"The ongoing financial crisis has exposed significant deficiencies in our current regulatory system, which is fragmented and overly complex," Mr. Dimon said. "Maintaining separate regulatory agencies across banking, securities, and insurance businesses is not only inefficient, but also denies any one agency access to complete information needed to regulate large, diversified institutions effectively and maintain stability across the financial system."
Mr. Dimon went on to call the system "byzantine," and he said the Office of Thrift Supervision in particular had some problems with some thrift companies like Countrywide Financial Corp. and Washington Mutual Inc.
Mr. Dimon also said that giving that role to the Federal Reserve Board, as Rep. Frank has proposed, makes the most sense, saying that to create a new regulator would take too much time.
Other CEOs agreed with that assessment.
"We need to have a coordinated superregulator for the financial services industry," said John Mack, the chairman and CEO of Morgan Stanley.
Regarding how to treat systemically important institutions, Mr. Lewis said, "That calls for more supervision than what we have now."
Many of the CEOs were also asked to weigh in on Mr. Geithner's new plans for Tarp, including stress tests for institutions to determine if they are healthy, new capital injections for institutions, and the creation of a bad bank to buy troubled assets. Most of the witnesses said they supported the ideas in concept but needed details.
"The devil is in the details," Mr. Dimon said.
The hearing — which lasted more than seven hours — ended on a positive note.
"I think everyone at this table is doing all they can with all their brains to fix this situation," Mr. Dimon said. "We will beat this thing. … This country will learn. It will reform. It will move on."