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Citi's Good News Must Be Put in Context

Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit may be buoyed by a recent government-mandated report's praise, but those sentiments are the eye of the beholder.





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CEO Vikram Pandit may be buoyed by a recent government-mandated report that found he and his charges are doing a good job, but investors may want to consider the context before forming their own opinions.

Not all that long ago, Pandit appeared to be in the

crosshairs, largely because Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Chairwoman

Sheila Bair didn't much like him. Outsiders were convinced that Citi's strategy was weak and

poorly communicated, and that its business was still in shambles.

Now, the firm is said to be generally in

good shape, according to

The Wall Street Journal

, which based that assessment on a leaked report from consulting firm Egon Zehnder International. Two lesser-known deputies, Vice Chairman Lewis Kaden and Chief Administrative Officer Don Callahan, aren't doing such a great job, but Pandit has things in control, according to the report, which was performed as part of a government-mandated review.


Bank of America

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CEO Ken Lewis went from being hailed for his dealmaking prowess when the

Merrill Lynch

merger was first reported to being pilloried and stripped of his chairman duties when Merrill's deteriorating state was revealed. It seemed only a matter of time before he was ousted from the company entirely, but then it seemed he might stay on for a year or more, until the company was ready to repay bailout funds. As the Merrill fire heated up, suddenly, he was

ready to go.

The twists and turns of public perception aren't necessarily based on real-time changes in reality. After all, Egon Zehnder's review of Citi was performed over the summer, and its results are being reported this week. (The board is still looking into it.) Merrill's losses and bonuses were occurring in late 2008, but were disclosed months later.

Tellingly, the same sorts of reports tend not to surface about

Wells Fargo

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JPMorgan Chase

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Goldman Sachs

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Morgan Stanley

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until change is imminent.

Wells announced on its own that Chairman Richard Kovacevich will be stepping down, as planned, at the end of the year. CEO John Stumpf will take over his role, also as planned. JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon spoke directly about his succession plans and the firm announced a shakeup of its investment banking unit before hushed, anonymous rumors emerged.

News that Morgan Stanley CEO John Mack was going to be replaced because of the firm's poor performance came as a shock, and there was little speculation about when Goldman's Lloyd Blankfein would step down. After all, he has helped Goldman earn its reputation as a hugely profitable vampire squid of the markets. Why would investors or any of the government leaders -- many of whom once worked at his firm -- want him to leave?

If nothing else, the difference shows that Citi and BofA still have a ways to go before they're on solid ground. There are differing opinions of how wonderful a job the two banks managers are doing. Various parties with axes to grind choose to disclose evidence of their opinion when they see fit.

Investors may want to base their judgments about Citi or BofA on results rather than the big shifts in perception that occur based on documents from months ago, when the mood was notably more sour or sweet. Yet for a moment and perhaps a brief one it's Vikram Pandit's turn to shine.


Written by Lauren Tara LaCapra in New York