Vikram Pandit's stewardship of Citigroup just received the equivalent of a triple-A rating. Egon Zehnder, the recruitment consultancy Citi paid to conduct a review of its top brass at the behest of regulators, gave the chief high marks — though a few of his deputies didn't fare so well. But to call this a complete vindication for Pandit would be a mistake.
Like the top grades complex securities garnered from rating agencies selected and in effect paid by the securities' designers, it's hard to take Egon Zehnder's plaudits at face value. Recruitment consultants are known for not biting the hand that feeds them.
That being said, Citi's board should keep Pandit in place for the moment. Though the former Morgan Stanley executive took longer than he should have done to make up his mind, Citi is now pursuing a sensible strategy of focusing on its role as a global provider of financial infrastructure to big corporate clients.
The bank is cutting back in retail banking where it has few economies of scale; it is deciding how best to get out of the controversial Phibro energy trading business; it has put its retail brokerage on a long-term exit path; and it has shunted most of its uncollateralized lending operations into Citi Holdings, a de facto way-station for assets that are on the block.
Anyway, Pandit's powers have been circumscribed to placate regulators. Relations with the government are now in the hands of the chairman, Dick Parsons. Citi's interface with investors and regulators was forcibly changed as well. Even if Pandit were to make bad decisions, his power to execute them would be limited.
But Citi directors shouldn't let Egon Zehnder's report stop them considering who might replace Pandit, either. Though he has embarked on a reasonable course, he has yet to deliver. Failure to do so would necessitate a change of captain. Without a Plan B, Citi's board could face a succession mess like the one now afflicting Bank of America.
B of A's board failed to prepare for the departure of chief executive Ken Lewis, despite calls to replace him and the possibility that looming legal battles could make his position untenable. The infighting at B of A, which is now considering hiring an emergency CEO, is more instructive for Citi's board than anything a consultant might prepare.