Richard Parsons, speaking two days after ending his 16-year tenure on the board of Citigroup Inc. and a predecessor, said the financial crisis was partly caused by a regulatory change that permitted the company’s creation.
The 1999 repeal of the Glass-Steagall law that separated banks from investment banks and insurers made the business more complicated, Parsons said yesterday at a Rockefeller Foundation event in Washington. He served as chairman of Citigroup, the third-biggest U.S. bank by assets, from 2009 until handing off the role to Michael O’Neill at the April 17 annual meeting.
“To some extent what we saw in the 2007, 2008 crash was the result of the throwing off of Glass-Steagall,” Parsons, 64, said during a question-and-answer session. “Have we gotten our arms around it yet? I don’t think so because the financial-services sector moves so fast.”
The 1998 merger of Citicorp and Sanford I. Weill’s Travelers Group Inc. depended on the U.S. government overturning the portion of the Depression-era act that required banks to be separate from capital-markets businesses like Travelers’ Salomon Smith Barney Holdings Inc. Parsons, who was president of Time Warner Inc. at the time, had been a member of the Citicorp board before joining the board of the newly created Citigroup.
“Why didn’t he do something about it when he had a chance to?” Mike Mayo, an analyst at CLSA in New York who rates Citigroup shares “underperform,” said in a phone interview. “He’s a couple days out the door and he’s publicly criticizing the ability to manage the company.”
Unlike John S. Reed, the former Citicorp CEO who said in 2009 that he regretted working to overturn Glass-Steagall, Parsons said he didn’t think that the barriers can be rebuilt.
“We are going to have to figure out how to manage in this new and dynamic world because there are good and sufficient business reasons for putting these things together,” Parsons said. “It’s just that the ability to manage what we have built isn’t up to our capacity to do it yet.”
Parsons didn’t refer to Citigroup specifically during his comments and Shannon Bell, a spokeswoman for the bank in New York, declined to comment. Mayo said Parsons’ comments show he views the New York-based bank as “too big to manage.”
“This gives more support to the new chairman to take more radical action,” said Mayo, whose book “Exile on Wall Street” was critical of Parsons and the management of banks including Citigroup. “Citigroup needs to be reduced in size whether that’s breaking up or additional asset sales or whatever it takes.”
Parsons said in a phone interview after the event that it was difficult to find executives who could run retail banks and investment banks in the U.S. because the two businesses had been separated by Glass-Steagall for about 60 years.
“One of the things we faced when we tried to find new leadership for Citi, there wasn’t anybody who had deep employment experience in both sides of what theretofore had been separate houses,” he said. Chief Executive Officer Vikram Pandit is trying to change that, Parsons said. “I think if you ask Vikram he’d say probably his biggest challenge long-term is developing the management.”
Banks are growing because corporations and other clients want them to, and management must meet the challenge, he said.
“People have a sort of a notion that ‘well, we can decide that’s too big to manage,’” he said. “But it got that way because there was a market need and institutions find and follow the needs of the marketplace. So what we have to do is we have to learn how to improve our ability to manage it and manage it more effectively.”
Citigroup, which took the most government aid of any U.S. bank during the financial crisis, has lost 86 percent of its value in the past four years, twice as much as the 24-company KBW Bank Index. Most shareholders voted this week against the bank’s compensation plan, which awarded Pandit about $15 million in total pay for 2011, when the shares fell 44 percent.
Shareholders’ views shouldn’t be “given the same level of weight” as those of the board and management, Parsons said. Companies “shouldn’t make the mistake of putting them in the driver’s seat.”