Citigroup Inc. (NYSE: C) stunned the markets on Tuesday with a sudden press release about the immediate departure of CEO Vikram Pandit. There are several reasons for us to wonder about what this really means about Citi, and we can only speculate that something major has taken place that was not telegraphed during the positive earnings report on Monday. We have come up with several reasons that could have been the final straw, but we cannot just take it on good faith that Pandit’s departure was exactly voluntary. It has all the hallmarks of a force-out situation.
For starters, the press release said that Pandit decided that this was the right time to leave and the chairman’s comment said that the company respects Pandit’s decision. That is the official line. What investors need to know is that for a chief executive like Vikram Pandit, along with President and COO John Havens prematurely announcing his resignation ahead of his planned retirement at year-end, does not add up as a normal departure at all. Again, the exit was as CEO and as a board member and the timeline was “effective immediately.”
So, here are some of the reasonable speculative reasons about the sudden and completely unexpected departure of Vikram Pandit. These are, of course, speculative and we are reasoning around the known events out there. But the reality is that the “departure” could be for any of these or other reasons.
Earnings were just released on Monday, and the stock rose by 5.5% on the report. It is at least possible that there were other items that may have not been known or discussed behind closed doors about the earnings report. Maybe the book value of $63.59 and tangible book value of $52.70 were just too aggressive, considering that the pre-earnings share price was $34.75. There could be a myriad of issues around the earnings report, which are too many to list.
Prince Alwaleed bin Talal has been mixed before, critical and positive, as a very large shareholder. The prince was not happy that the dividend was not raised, but he told CNBC after this news that Pandit left the bank in perfect shape. Is it possible that the prince was getting more vocal and threatened to be out in the public against the efforts?
Are there unknown health issues? No one likes to bring up anyone’s health without knowledge, including us. Still, many executives employees use a health scare or an actual health event to suddenly leave. We have no reason to believe that anything has happened here, but again this departure comes out of left field.
Did Pandit take complete offense that he was not also named chairman back in April? It is very possible (if not probable) that Pandit wanted the chairman role over Michael O’Neill, who was named chairman in April. By having the CEO and chairman role, Pandit would have been able to run the bank with a more streamlined approval process over the forward strategies.
U.S. and U.K. banks are under a serious probe of Libor. It is at least possible that the Libor probe is going to be far more sweeping and wide. Is it possible that Citi has a larger role in the Libor scandal? Anything is possible, but it may take months before we know. It is possible that Pandit did not want to go through yet one more round of public televised grilling by Congress and/or other regulatory bodies looking for their two minutes of air time and another pound of flesh.
Does Citi have its own version of the London Whale? If something negative is happening on the trading front, the public might not know about this for months. For that matter, the officers of the company might not know for quite some time. We have no reason to believe that this is the case, but it cannot be ruled out.
Another serious possibility is that Pandit may have just been waiting and waiting to punch out. He is incredibly wealthy already, after receiving more than $260 million in recent years. A blow may have been that shareholders (along with many large holders) voted to reject Pandit’s pay package earlier this year. You would think that Pandit might not care, but getting slammed over your pay for the turnaround efforts here could have been one of the last straws. If nothing else, running a bank in that turnaround with layoffs, restructuring, consolidation and on and on would be stressful even for the Grinch. It is very possible that the explanation was simply: “Enough is finally enough, goodbye.”
What if things were really heating up in the board room? Chairman O’Neill may have wanted to be much more operational over Pandit’s vision. It would not be the first time that a board has fought with management over restructuring and strategy. Andrew Ross Sorkin said on CNBC this morning that Pandit’s relationship with the board of directors was perhaps more contentious than what has been telegraphed to the public. Market pundit Jim Cramer has telegraphed that Pandit was forced out. We have heard about board clashes over strategy ahead but that is something that may never fully come to light.
There is still no love and there likely will be no love from regulators ahead. Sheila Bair, former FDIC chair, has not exactly been very positive about Pandit, and she has just said she commends the replacement. Bair said that shareholders should even welcome this news.
What about stress test pressure? The large and too big to fail banks are facing yet another round of stress tests ahead. While these appear delayed, it is possible that Pandit did not want to be around when that is finalized. After all, Citi was blocked from increasing its dividend before, and it is no secret that many were disappointed about that. Maybe Pandit was worried that Citi would still not be able to raise its dividend in the future.
Bank of American already has issued research saying it remains bullish after the Pandit departure. While the report said it does expect weakness and was as surprised as anyone else, it said, “After speaking with C, we do not believe the CEO change is likely to be related to any ‘smoking gun’ issue and we would therefore regard any near-term share price weakness as a good buying opportunity.”
The reaction to Pandit’s departure is obviously one that is still a bit of a mystery. Any of the reasons alone, or any combination of the reasons, could be why Vikram Pandit punched out. It is likely that more details will be coming throughout the week, and you can bet that more speculation will arise as to why. You might as well count on the rumor mill being active around the Pandit exit as well.
Earlier this morning Citi shares were down over 1% but now Citi shares are up 1.5% at $37.20 in very active trading.
JON C. OGG