First prize: lunch with Vikram Pandit! Second prize…

By:
Jon Macaskill
Published on:

Vikram Pandit, the former Citigroup CEO, who was ousted in 2012, is casting his net wide as he looks for ways to stay busy.

Having dabbled in a peer-to-peer lending venture and a potential consortium to buy exchange data, he is now touting a consultancy to help banks address problems with their corporate culture and reportedly offered to fly to London or Frankfurt to have lunch with Deutsche Bank to discuss the issue.

This should be fertile ground and not just at Deutsche Bank, which is going to great lengths to promote a cultural overhaul that already includes imposition of some odd metrics designed to monitor progress on matters cultural by employees who were formerly united mainly by their uninhibited pursuit of bonuses.

It is far from clear that Pandit is the answer to the question of how to refresh the corporate culture of banking, however.

He does not display the old-school Wall Street braggadocio of JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon, the man who famously told Pandit to “stop being such a jerk” when they were both on a Federal Reserve conference call about a bailout for Bear Stearns in 2008.

Pandit has never shown an appetite for tackling established but problematic practices in finance, however. If anything he has been a poster boy for going along to get along. This is perfectly understandable, but does not set him up as an exemplar of the newly fashionable role of “culture carrier” for best practices in banking.

Pandit lost his job as head of institutional services at Morgan Stanley in 2005 (with a healthy pay-off) after belatedly joining a failed coup attempt to oust CEO Philip Purcell. When disgruntled executives finally managed to replace Purcell with John Mack, Pandit dithered about a return to banking before setting up a hedge fund called Old Lane. Performance at the fund was dismal, but Pandit managed to score a $165 million windfall when Citigroup bought Old Lane in 2007 for $800 million in order to install him as a potential future CEO.

Pandit made a decent fist of steadying the ship in five years at the helm of Citi, before being forced out in late 2012 by a board that lost patience with his poor relations with both investors and regulators.

This might seem to position Pandit as an expert in how not to develop a strong culture at a bank, but his new venture at least has a more interesting angle in the background of his partners.

He is teaming up with a group of Chicago-based academics that have already set up a consulting firm called The Greatest Good. They are a heterodox bunch of thinkers, including Nobel Laureates in economics, who share a knack for popularizing intellectual trends. Steven Levitt is among the best known in the US, due to his book “Freakonomics”, which applies counter-intuitive economic nuggets to topics such as crime and politics.

The most highly respected member of the group, though, is arguably Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist by background who won the Nobel Prize for economics in 2002 for his work on decision-making and uncertainty. He is also a best-selling author, whose book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” is especially acute on the dangers of over-confidence and provides abundant examples of failures by corporate officers to understand the risks of their actions.

Kahneman is enough of a realist to acknowledge that corporate cultures of any kind (not just in banking) reward optimists and that decisions must be made with the information available. That might enable him to provide some practical counsel to banks looking to improve their corporate cultures.

It will be an uphill job, however. The dynamics of supply and demand make it extremely difficult to contain banker compensation when markets are rallying, as even the Boy Scout CEO of Barclays, Antony Jenkins, is finding out. Investment bankers might sit still for a few lectures on corporate responsibility, given current sensitivities, but successful ones will always vote with their feet if they feel that net compensation is under threat.

Still, bank CEOs know that something must be seen to be done in the field of corporate culture. And if that means lunch with Vikram Pandit, then lunch with Vikram it is!