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Cover Story

The Resurrection

As Vikram Pandit’s remaking of Citigroup shows, Wall Street is no longer waiting on Washington. The result: a global financial elite even less under U.S. control than before the crash.

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Rising power: The financial industry is back.(Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

In contrast to a lot of Wall Street CEOs, Vikram Pandit seems quite human. Vulnerable, even. No one ever heard Pandit say, “Let’s go kill someone,” as John (Mack the Knife) Mack of Morgan Stanley reportedly used to bark to his derivatives team at the start of a trading day. It’s hard to imagine the soft-spoken CEO of Citigroup as a “vampire squid… relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money,” as in writer Matt Taibbi’s notorious description of Goldman Sachs.

Yes, Pandit is ridiculously rich, like his peers, having sold his hedge fund to Citi for $800 million before taking over as CEO and then spending nearly $20 million to purchase the late actor Tony Randall’s 10-room palace on tony Central Park West. And, of course, Pandit and his giant bank—like all the spoiled behemoths of the Street—have been endlessly coddled by Uncle Sam, saved by $45 billion in bailout funds that still support Citi (even as Pandit ordered up another corporate jet, outraging Congress).

 

But more than other members of the reemerging Wall Street elite—think of Jamie Dimon, the disdainful lord of JPMorgan Chase, or Goldman’s plaintive chief, Lloyd Blankfein, who once whined that he was “doing God’s work”—Pandit has sought to get ahead of public outrage, to mend his ways and atone for past sins, to affect a little humility. After the crash of 2008, Pandit insisted on taking only a dollar a year in salary and promised “a return to the basics of banking as a core of our business.” Pandit even backed a limited “cram-down” of mortgage payments—government-imposed reductions in what homeowners owe—outraging the other banks that refused to give an inch. He pledged to get his institution out of the speculation business and declared his vision to make it “America’s global bank.” Citigroup, he told National Journal in an interview, “is back to serving the real economy.”

(PICTURES: 5 CEOs Who Defy Washington)

The question is, whose real economy? Not necessarily America’s. In Pandit’s 10- to 20- year plan, the “America” part of Citi’s banking business clearly shrinks and the “global” part only grows. Pandit has sought to pare down his nearly $2 trillion company, disposing of asset management and other businesses. He sold half of Smith Barney to Morgan Stanley; and he shrank his bank’s $827 billion in mortgage-related and other unwanted assets by nearly $500 billion after sequestering them in a separate entity called Citi Holdings. This week, Pandit finally succumbed to investor pressure and announced a 1-cent dividend—the first since Citi’s near-death experience—and a reverse stock split that will drive the bank’s price back into the $40 range.

 

Yet in its return to health, Citi is already earning most of its resurgent profits overseas—especially in Asia and Latin America. That revenue stream will rise dramatically as investment demand in emerging markets more than triples from $3.5 trillion in 2008 (compared with $7.5 trillion in developed economies) to $12.7 trillion in 2030, according to Citi’s projections. Citi has targeted what it calls its 150 “top priority” cities around the world. Only 16 of them are in the United States. A total of 116 cities are in emerging markets, and “this concentration will likely only increase,” Pandit says.

The concentration of elites on Wall Street is increasing, as well. The largest surviving banks—mainly Citi, JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, Morgan Stanley, and Wells Fargo—are growing bigger and more global relative to the rest of the industry. They have already snapped up weak sisters at fire-sale prices (Bank of America swallowed Merrill Lynch, and JPMorgan gulped down Bear Stearns). They are pushing out smaller banks in key areas, having increased their overall market shares in deposits, mortgages, credit cards, home-equity loans, and small-business loans. And as these giants broaden their global reach, international regulators agree even less on a common approach than their Washington counterparts do. Wall Street traders have themselves begun to identify certain institutions as too big to fail, giving them an additional commercial advantage.

The upshot is that, in the wake of the worldwide financial meltdown and in direct opposition to the intentions of Washington reformers, the U.S. government may have become the guarantor of last resort for even-larger global banks over which it has even less control and oversight than before.

 

 

RISEN FROM THE ASHES

Pandit, who says he is chasing 2.5 billion “unbanked consumers” in emerging markets, is certainly not waiting around for regulatory clarity. The vastly complex Dodd-Frank financial-reform law—touted by President Obama as the “toughest financial reform” since the Great Depression—is not expected to come fully on line for another six months or so. “We’re doing our own thing,” Pandit says, although he acknowledges that the Federal Reserve, Citi’s main regulator, must still bless his plans.

This article appears in the March 26, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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