But Pandit isn’t calling the shots anymore. The Wall Street Journal, which has been particularly harsh in its depiction of the CEO, had him literally begging the government for his job last week: “Don’t give up on us,” he reportedly pleaded. “Give us a chance to execute.”
“He’s playing defense all the time,” says a longtime friend from his Morgan Stanley days. “This is just grinding these people down to nothing.” Another friend calls him “tragic,” a government “charity case.” Says another, “Would I have advised him to take the job? Yeah. Would I feel bad in retrospect? Yeah.”
Pandit has very little time to use whatever power he has left to try to turn things around at Citi—news of the Treasury deal sent the stock plunging to a historic low. A friend jokes that the CEO is the “MacGyver of the private sector banking system,” out to “save Citi before the timing device runs to zero.” But Pandit has never seen himself as the hero type. He looks at the problem with the eyes of an engineer: “My job is to figure out which pipes go where and which pipes have to be cut off, which pipes have to be unclogged,” he told a close associate. “It’s going to take me a year and a half to two years and then the water will flow, and when the water will flow, the stock price goes up. The stock price goes up, everybody will come around.”
The night before the government deal is sealed, Pandit finally comes to the phone, after weeks of resisting an interview, to put rumors of his demise to rest. He seems amused, slightly giddy. He has survived, for now.
He brushes off Journal reports that depicted him as powerless, running Citi under the heel of his “federal masters.” “We all have a master,” he says. “It’s not about that … It’s a tough time. There is adversity out there. If I don’t step up and do what I’m doing, take what is thrown at me and get this company going, I would have been the wrong choice of CEO.”
In conversation, he comes across as assertive, even a little cocky—bold in a way his critics don’t believe he can be. “I have complete confidence in my plan,” he says. “That’s what gets me here every morning.” Then again, what choice does he have?