Update: Citi’s award-winning baloney

September 23, 2010, 10:44 PM UTC

‘Bank’ isn’t a four-letter word to everyone.

Though the word may have you thinking of absurd fee schemes, abusive lending, irresponsible foreclosures and ridiculous bonuses, others persist in invoking Mom and apple pie.

He puts you first

So it is with Citi chief Vikram Pandit (right). He proclaimed in a speech Thursday that Citi, the bank that nearly choked to death on subprime-backed bonds in the early stages of the financial crisis and then needed* more than $300 billion of government assistance to survive, is now built around the idea of “responsible finance.”

Citi was one of the big peddlers of subprime mortgages and recently agreed to pay $75 million to settle charges it misled investors by failing to come clean on the scale of its subprime exposure.

But Pandit said the bank now bases its lending decisions first on what’s good for the customer, second on what’s good for the “financial system” and third on whether it “creates economic value.”

This sounds a little far fetched, since putting economics third might make it tough to hit the all-important Wall Street estimates and get the stock above $4 one of these days. But you can see where Pandit might be feeling pretty high on Citi.

He made the speech in accepting an award in Washington from the Corporation for Enterprise Development, or CFED, a Washington-based nonprofit that aims to boost economic opportunity for the poor.

Citi’s signature accomplishment on that front was to help raise $200 million for a fund that backs so-called community development financial institutions, or banks that lend in low-income neighborhoods. It also gave $7.5 million to a group backing charter schools. And let’s face it, it probably doesn’t hurt that Citi has been CFED’s top sponsor.

Those are worthy efforts, no doubt. But as the hard-hitters atop the big banks are so apt to do, Pandit overreaches and claims the banks are the very heart of the economic system. The heartless heart, as it were.

Banks are an integral part of every economy and every society. And their role is not merely to further people’s material well-being—though that is vitally important. The value of banks runs deeper. Human rights and democracy reach their full potential only where there is economic inclusion for all. That in turn requires financial inclusion—access to basic financial products and services that everyone in this room, and people in every advanced society, take for granted. Financial inclusion—that is our cause.

A likely story.

*Update: Initially I wrote that Citi had “sucked up” more than $300 billion of government assistance, but a spokeswoman insists that’s not the case, since the bulk of that figure reflects an asset guarantee the bank never drew on.