Ajay Banga’s World Bank appointment shows that financial CEOs aren’t toxic anymore

February 24, 2023, 5:56 PM UTC
Ajay Banga, former CEO of MasterCard.
Ajay Banga, former CEO of Mastercard, has been tapped by President Biden to lead the World Bank.
Ting Shen—Bloomberg/Getty Images

When Ajay Banga became Mastercard’s chief executive in 2010, he gained membership in a CEO club with a particularly toxic reputation

The United States was still reeling from the financial crisis, and financial CEOs were public enemy No. 1 in the eyes of millions of Americans who had lost their jobs, their homes, or both when the housing bubble collapsed. There were widespread calls for bankers to be jailed for their role in destroying the economy—especially after the U.S. government spent billions of dollars bailing out financial institutions that made reckless bets on risky mortgages. (Banga’s previous employer, Citigroup, needed a cool $45 billion to survive.) Lawmakers of both parties had excoriated many of these men, including Citi’s CEO, in public hearings. The following year, protesters angry about the lack of real-world consequences for financial CEOs would occupy Wall Street.

Mastercard and rival Visa weren’t the primary villains of this era—as payments companies spun out from the big banks, they didn’t make loans to consumers or sell off securities to investors. But they also did time in the political crosshairs during that Wall-Street-is-evil era. In October 2010, a few months after Banga officially took over, the Obama administration’s Justice Department sued (and eventually settled with) Mastercard and Visa for antitrust violations over the fees they charged to merchants. (The companies did not admit wrongdoing.)

Fast-forward 13 years, and Banga’s financial background sure doesn’t seem toxic to Obama’s former vice president. On Thursday, President Biden said he would nominate the former Mastercard CEO to run the World Bank, crediting him with “critical experience mobilizing public-private resources to tackle the most urgent challenges of our time.” 

To be sure, Biden’s nominee has never been personally linked to, or blamed for, the excesses of the aughts. Banga, who would be the first Indian-born person to run the World Bank, stepped down as Mastercard CEO in late 2020 after earning glowing reviews for his focus on financial inclusion, and for working to increase access to financial services in the developing world. 

He also made Mastercard shareholders happy, boosting revenues and quadrupling profits over the course of his CEO tenureNow vice chairman at private equity giant General Atlantic, Banga has cultivated ties within senior Democratic circles, serving on the Obama administration’s cybersecurity council and advising Vice President Kamala Harris on immigration. 

Still, Banga’s evolution from early Obama antitrust target to Biden political nominee is a remarkable glow-up for a crisis-era financial CEO—especially one who’s currently working in the politically unpopular realm of private equity. Moreover, the Biden administration is clearly hoping Banga will be a PR improvement for the World Bank. The current president, David Malpass, last year created an international mess when he seemed to cast doubt on the existence of climate change; last week, Malpass announced that he would resign in June, almost a year before his five-year term was due to expire.

If Banga is confirmed to the World Bank role, he would likely be the first crisis-era financial CEO to hold such a high-level post. (Both Democratic and Republican administrations have appointed senior crisis-era bankers to top-level positions, although none had previously reached the level of CEO at a publicly traded company. JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, who declined the role of Treasury Secretary under President Donald Trump, came the closest to breaking that barrier.)

Not everyone is happy to see financial-industry tarnish disappear from executives’ résumés, especially when it comes to leading a public-sector entity focused on global development and fighting poverty. “President Joe Biden and Secretary Yellen have literally named the vice chairman of a rapacious international private equity firm (General Atlantic) to take his first job ever in public service at nearly the highest level in the world possible,” Jeff Hauser, executive director of the progressive Revolving Door Project, said in a statement calling for Biden to retract Banga’s nomination. 

Hauser added in an email to Fortune that Banga’s Big Finance background might have been more of a liability if the post of World Bank president had a higher public profile in the States. “I think it reflects a belief that Americans don’t follow international affairs closely,” he wrote. “I hope that view is mistaken, but I don‘t believe they would put a banker up for a senior job in the U.S. government.” 

General Atlantic did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Fortune.

But for other executives, Banga’s appointment to the World Bank offers a glimmer of public-service hope—especially for tech CEOs currently facing antitrust lawsuits, or the founder-billionaires who have replaced bankers as our business villains du jour. Industries have a way of cycling in and out of the public’s good (and bad) graces; next to the excesses of an Elon Musk or a Sam Bankman-Fried, the financial CEOs of yesteryear are positively sober, responsible adults. In another 10 or 15 years, maybe public (and political) sentiment about this current generation of tech executives will also have shifted—or at least paled next to whatever the next business on the hot seat will be.

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