Monday, April 12, 2010

Citigroup: "Vikram Pandit’s $350 glass of wine" (C)

From Reuters via Ethiopian Review:

Felix Salmon April 12th, 2010 at 2:03 am

Andrew Ross picks up on this anecdote from Roger Lowenstein’s new book:

The problem of executive pay did not admit to an easy fix. Well into the crisis period, when banks such as Citigroup were operating on federal investment and when Citi’s stock was in single digits, Vikram Pandit, the CEO, was observed with a lunch guest at Le Bernardin, one of the top-rated restaurants in New York. Pandit looked discerningly at the wine list, saw nothing by the glass that appealed, and ordered a $350 bottle so that, as he explained, he could savor “a glass of wine worth drinking.” Pandit drank just one glass; his friend had none.

I have to say I have a grudging admiration for Pandit here. For one thing, this story doesn’t really speak to the issue of executive pay: Pandit made his real money not as an executive but as a part-owner of Old Lane, which got bought by Citigroup for a vastly overinflated sum. Yes, Old Lane was bought largely for the purpose of bringing Pandit into the Citi fold, but that kind of thing is very hard to consider “executive pay”.

What’s more, I’m sure the rest of the bottle hardly went to waste: most likely it was either drunk by the staff or sold off by the glass to people who were very happy to see such a high-end wine available by the glass.

And more generally, you don’t need to be worth tens of millions of dollars to pull a stunt like this. You just need to like good wine with good food, and to decide that in this particular restaurant on this particular day, a goodglass of wine is worth more to you than $350. I can think of people I know earning six-figure salaries (as opposed to seven or eight figures) who are definitely capable of doing this kind of thing.

Of course, it’s also possible that Pandit put the meal on expenses. And you can see the logic: if a $350 bottle of wine would be an acceptable expense normally, it’s silly to polish the bottle off solely to justify the expense of ordering it. The main benefit of ordering a great bottle of wine is to taste the wine inside it; by the time you reach the sixth glass, you’ve already got that benefit, and at that point you’re mainly just getting drunker.

None of which stops the fact that the optics here are terrible. Pandit doesn’t behave this way in public any more, I’m sure — he’s super-alert to any signs of conspicuous consumption at this point. But I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that, in the privacy of his own home, he occasionally does exactly the same thing, and opens up a spectacular bottle only to drink a single glass. It’s a pretty modest vice, by contemporary standards of plutocratic excess.