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Citi's Pandit's Pressure Cooker

The talk about whether Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit should keep his job has died down of late, but any slippage in the first quarter, considering how well rivals have done, could bring it all back.



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CEO Vikram Pandit has to be feeling the pressure.

Citigroup's first-quarter results will be under even greater scrutiny now that both

Bank of America

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JPMorgan Chase

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have posted blowout profits, and illustrated the better credit quality the market has craved.

Until they were derailed by Friday's news of civil fraud charges filed by the SEC against

Goldman Sachs

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, bank stocks had enjoyed an almost epic rally in the six weeks leading up to the first-quarter reporting season. Citigroup was the biggest winner among the money-center names, rising 50% year-to-date through Wednesday, and breaking through $5 on Thursday for the first time since mid-October 2009.

These forces have conspired to put Pandit in a tough spot and elevated the first-quarter report to pivotal status. He has to deliver results that will not only represent progress for Citigroup itself and justify the stock's surge; the numbers must also show the company is keeping pace with its rivals.

If he can match the earnings we've seen so far, the consistent chatter since Pandit took the helm at Citigroup in December 2007 about whether or not the former hedge fund manager is able to run a company as complex as Citigroup will effectively be silenced in the near term. That talk has subsided of late as the stock ran higher, but it would quickly become deafening if Pandit falls short.

Citigroup has posted losses in eight of the last nine quarters. Should Pandit be able to show that the company also benefited from improved trading results and declining credit costs in the form of true profit, it will be a firm boost for his reputation and force his critics into retreat.

Wall Street analysts are currently looking for breakeven results from Citigroup this time around, but Pandit may now need to come in comfortably in the black to keep the naysayers at bay.

--Written by Laurie Kulikowski in New York.