Citi's Pandit faces bailout questions

By David Ellis, staff writer


NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit thanked U.S. taxpayers for delivering billions of dollars of aid during of the depths of the credit crisis, but offered few details on why the government needed to step in more than once to rescue the embattled firm.

Testifying before a congressional watchdog group Thursday, Pandit tried to explain away the government's decision to give the New York City-based bank a second aid package of $20 billion in November 2008, blaming short sellers as well as general malaise in financial markets.

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Vikram Pandit, Citigroup's chief executive officer, testifies before the Congressional Oversight Panel Thursday.

Members of the Congressional Oversight Panel, who called the hearing to gather details on the current state of the government's investment in the firm, were hardly satisfied.

"I'm sorry Mr. Pandit, but everyone was in dysfunctional markets at that point," said Elizabeth Warren, the oversight panel's chairwoman.

Pandit told the panel he could not recall whether he spoke with anyone at the Treasury Department during the third week of November 2008, a fateful period for the company in which its stock had lost close to two-thirds of its value.

Unlike rival Bank of America (BAC, Fortune 500), which endured significant scrutiny for accepting more than one taxpayer bailout following its decision to purchase Merrill Lynch, the government's rescue of Citigroup has not garnered much attention from lawmakers in the wake of the crisis.

Public scrutiny of Citi has subsided somewhat since the company moved to repay the combined $45 billion it received under the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, in December.

U.S. taxpayers however still own a 27% stake in the company, which is overseen by the Treasury Department.

Treasury Assistant Secretary Herb Allison, who also appeared at Thursday's hearing, indicated to members of the panel that he expects the government will make money on its investment.

"If Treasury were able to sell all its Citigroup common shares at the current market price, taxpayers would realize a positive return," Allison said in his statement.

Citigroup (C, Fortune 500) shares rose more than 1.5% in afternoon trade Thursday after closing at $3.40 per share in the previous session.

Allison would not offer details on the timing or method by which Treasury would sell the remaining shares, but reiterated that it planned to dispose of its stake in Citigroup "as soon as possible."

With billions of dollars still tied up in the company though, it came as no surprise that Pandit endured such pointed questions from the panel.

The Citi chief fielded inquiries on everything from what the company was doing to fix the firm to his stance on the Obama administration's proposal to curtail so-called proprietary trading.

"I do think banks should be banks," Pandit said, noting that his firm had sold off a lot of its trading-oriented businesses as part of its ongoing restructuring program.

The recovery for Citigroup, however, has hardly been smooth. Even as the company shed some $168 billion in assets housed within its Citi Holdings division, the company lost $7.6 billion in the fourth quarter.

Pandit warned of further consumer-related loan losses, but stressed Thursday that the overall bank was well positioned to return to profitability this year.

"Today, Citi is operating on a very strong foundation and is positioned to contribute to the economic recovery and generate sustained profitability for the benefit of all our stakeholders," he said. To top of page

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