Journal Inside the Citi Mess

The Journal has a very readable story this morning on the tensions between Citigroup and the government. It shows the problems the government is having trying to keep its eye on Citi, in part because of the haphazard regulatory system.

But it’s clear the difficulty mostly lies in the fact that the government doesn’t have a coherent policy toward the Citis of the world. It’s letting them live on when they shouldn’t because… well, who knows?

Complicating the issue is the government’s back-and-forth between bouts of micromanaging the banking giant and periods of ignoring it. In trying to be neither an active nor a passive investor, the U.S. is directing the business without a firm strategy or particular expertise.

That’s compounded by the fact that Citi is so big and unwieldy it never should have been allowed to exist in the first place:

Former federal officials have dubbed Citigroup the “Death Star,” comparing the bank’s threat to the financial system with the planet-destroying super weapon in the “Star Wars” movies. Privately, in the words of one official, they regard the banking giant as “unmanageable.”

This is where I plump again to break up these giants. No company should be allowed to get “too big to fail.” So carve them all up until they’re, you know, not too big to fail.

The Journal story has lots of great detail, no surprise since it threw its ace Monica Langley on the case:

The scrutiny has Citigroup executives second-guessing everything, right down to the fresh-baked cookies offered at a recent corporate retreat in Armonk, N.Y. Seated in plush chairs around a three-story stone fireplace, some attendees wondered aloud if the cookies themselves might be portrayed as a frivolous use of taxpayer money.

I guess Citi, at least, has been somewhat humbled. But not so humbled that they won’t bitch to Wall Street Journal reporters about their new patron. It wouldn’t surprise me if this royally pisses off the government and causes it to become more assertive.

But hey—maybe what CEO Vikram Pandit & Co. want right now is a daddy figure:

In recent weeks, Citigroup executives have reached out to various government officials for guidance — with little to show for their effort. Last week, Mr. Pandit met with Lawrence Summers, the government’s chief economic adviser, in the White House’s West Wing. Mr. Summers made clear that he wouldn’t discuss Citigroup specifically, and Mr. Pandit emerged from the meeting with no better idea of where the Obama administration stands in managing ties with the big bank.

Langley and reporter David Enrich get a look into what happened with Cit’s private-jet debacle:

In late January, as news was about to break about Citigroup’s plans to buy a $42 million corporate jet, Mr. Pandit huddled with Citigroup executives in the firm’s Manhattan headquarters. Mr. Pandit suggested the company simply cancel the order to minimize the bad publicity.

Lewis Kaden, a Citigroup vice chairman, resisted, arguing that the company needed to carefully word any public statement about the jet in order to avoid a fee from the plane’s manufacturer. An internal debate ensued over how best to handle the matter, and the lack of a resolution transformed it into a politically potent multiday news story.

Federal officials were apoplectic. President Barack Obama branded Citigroup’s plans to buy the plane “outrageous.” Treasury officials phoned Citigroup executives and pressured them to scrap the order, which they did.

The tongue-lashing didn’t stop there. Mr. Pandit received an earful from Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D., N.Y.). At a meeting in her Manhattan office, Rep. Velazquez scolded Mr. Pandit for not canceling the jet order sooner and suggested that he fire the Citigroup public-relations team for “bungling” the situation. Rep. Velazquez couldn’t be reached for comment.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.) also met with Mr. Pandit after the plane debacle. “The dynamics are changing,” he told Mr. Pandit. “Brace yourself for more accountability and stricter oversight. No more big executive pay, no more frills.”

This at least sounds promising:

Amid pressure to shake up its board, Citigroup initially suggested it would begin making director changes at the April shareholder meeting. The Fed rejected that, pushing lead director Richard Parsons to act sooner. The Fed has also frowned upon some potential nominees that Citigroup has informally pitched to the agency, saying Washington would prefer “tough-minded independent thinkers.”

Who would want to take that gig? See for example:

In a recent meeting with investment bankers, Citigroup’s investment-banking chief, John Havens, was pushing his deputies to further streamline operations in order to reduce costs. One executive asked whether the changes needed to be made quickly. The question “is typical Citi,” Mr. Havens replied, suggesting that decisions at the company take too long, according to a person at the meeting. “That’s why Geithner is so intolerant with us these days,” Mr. Havens told the bankers.

Now, gallows humor is setting in. This week, some employees noted that they always thought that working for Citigroup — with its unwieldy bureaucracy and clashing fiefdoms — was like working for the government anyway.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.