Citigroup’s CEO Vikram Pundit, who has been causing quite the commotion lately, spoke to a surprisingly positive audience in Low last night as part of Columbia’s World Leader’s Forum lecture series. Principles of Economics Bureau Chief David Hu gives us the report from on high.
No, it’s not SIPA graduation, but Vikram Pandit, CEO of Citigroup and 4-time Columbia graduate, is speaking at Columbia regardless. He spoke yesterday as part of Columbia’s World Leaders Forum lecture series—a situation that some found surprising, due to the fact that Pandit isn’t a president of a nation or even a high-ranking government official. Nevertheless, recent World Leaders Forum talks have been focused the current economic climate, so it makes sense that a person of Pandit’s caliber would talk.
Pandit’s less-than-remarkable run at being a CEO has been well publicized, and PrezBo’s introduction of the speaker did not serve to alleviate these notions. He spoke of the recent economic collapse of Citigroup, how it “all came to a head” under Pandit’s reign, and how the CEO has been harshly criticized for this situation. However, Bollinger did say that those who knew Pandit were surprised at these allegations, frequently mentioning his intellect and academic nature and describing his otherwise seemingly successful career in detail.
Photo via Columbia University
After this comprehensive introduction, Pandit took the stage and described Citigroup’s downfall and measures he has taken at the company to help the situation. He called Citigroup a “creature of its environment” that seemed to have an endless supply of money due to risky economic strategies employed by predecessors; according to him, “Size mattered more than ever.” Pandit then stepped in as CEO in December 2007, perhaps deserving an award for this utterly terrible timing—he himself even called it a “trying and difficult period for millions of people.”
The rest of Pandit’s speech involved describing what he has done while at Citi, and it can effectively be summed up with one word: “culture.” He described three major reforms he headed at Citigroup: rebuilding its financial strength, reiterating the fact the company is a bank (i.e., it will now focus on “banking basics”), and leading corporate cultural change. He spent the majority of the time describing this last effort, and indeed, he comes across as the culture warrior of the banking industry.
Pandit emphasized that “a culture of responsibility is a very powerful force,” and that Citi is attempting to create a unified culture that is based upon “values of responsible finance.” During this discussion, he repeatedly mentioned history and learning from the past, a move that indeed made him seem sage, as PrezBo described. However, the chief executive never mentioned specific measures he has taken internally to promote this culture of responsibility, only describing this culture at a very high level and how it will be led by a return to “the basis of banking.”
Pandit did take specific stances on other issues though, including echoing his support for the current financial reform bill in Congress. He also described changes he believed in that we are promised all too much, but never seem to materialize. These included how “markets should be transparent,” the fact that an effort should be made to “bring Wall Street and Main Street closer together,” and how “we should end, once and for all, [the idea of] ‘too big to fail.’”
The question and answer session that followed was relatively tame, and without the vitriol you sometimes see when controversial speakers come to a World Leaders Forum event. PrezBo began the session by asking two questions linking the economy to constitutional law and world government (what a scholar!), to which Pandit responded how a document akin to a Bill of Rights would be useful in the financial industry. Throughout the rest of the Q&A, the CEO seemed to continue to echo generalized statements about the financial industry, including about having to return to “regulatory principles,” on how there is a “difference between speculation and serving clients,” and that a good thing that came out of the economic crisis is the “need for a systemic regulator.”
The talk overall seemed to be well received–as well received as a talk from a CEO of a struggling big bank could be. The audience seemed to be composed of a majority of business school students, although there were some free seats left as the talk began. While Pandit is indeed no world leader, with his insight as the chief executive of a large bank leading “cultural” change, some light was shed on banking in America and the future of its economic climate.