Citigroup Inc.'s (NYSE:C) CEO Vikram Pandit supports a 10% cap on credit-card interest rates -- or so men of God told me on Monday.
I was standing outside the City University of New York's Graduate Center, where Pandit spoke at an event organized by The Economist magazine called The Buttonwood Gathering.
There, Rev. David Benke, president of the Atlantic District for the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod, revealed to me the word of Pandit.
In November 2009, the Boston Globe quoted Pandit as supporting an interest-rate cap on new credit-card accounts. Somehow, though, this hasn't helped Roger Gench, pastor of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C.
"I had the interest rate raised on my Citibank MasterCard to 29.99%," he said. "And when I called to complain...the person I talked to had the gall to say to me, "Why do you care? You pay off your balance every month.'"
This is what's happening, according to men of God: Banks destroyed the economy, people lost jobs, and now sometimes the only way to feed starving children is with credit cards.
The ministers are part of a group called Metro IAF that demands a 10% cap on credit-card interest rates. They are calling on congregations, foundations, unions, school, cities, states and other organizations to pull their money from institutions that charge more.
Look at it this way: Remember when banks were in trouble and the people bailed them out? Now, the people are in trouble, and the banks want 30%.
Patrick O'Connor, lead pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in the Jamaica section of Queens, in New York, took the microphone during a Q&A session and personally thanked Pandit for his stance on the 10% credit-card cap.
Pandit, however, would neither confirm nor deny his support for any cap at all. Instead, he went into a filibustering rant about how he now supports the new Consumer Protection Bureau established by the Dodd-Frank financial reform act.
"All the progress that has been made," Pandit opined, "is the right kind of progress...To have a Consumer Protection Bureau...I believe that is the right thing for the economy.
"It's not only about cards. It's about mortgages. It's about auto loans. It's about student loans. It's about everything. And so given the fact that we have a new agency...We're actually looking forward to working with them," Pandit said.
I didn't want to tell the men of God this, but if there's one thing Pandit has more of than money in his taxpayer-rescued bank, it's nonsense.
He claims "too-big-to-fail" is wrong, even as Citigroup remains one of the biggest failures to ever not fail. He also sings the praises of financial reform legislation with a chorus filled with fine-print qualifiers.
Oh, and did you hear the one about how Pandit only makes a $1 annual salary? Can't wait to see how he dollar-cost averages his way out of that one when he takes his paycheck next year.
Does he, or doesn't he, support the cap? O'Connor asked.
"That depends on what the objectives are for society and the kind of credit creation you want," Pandit replied. "There are different ways of handling the issue of making credit available to people in need...And as I said, I really want to work with the Consumer Protection Agency."
It was almost as if we were watching an animatronic suit with a random-word generator stuffed inside. Another Metro IAF member stood and asked Pandit again. "Is that a yes or a no?"
"I wish that answers to what's going on in the economy were that clear to put them in "yes" or "no,'" Pandit answered.
Rev. Herman Hamilton of Roxbury Presbyterian Church near Boston told me a group of local clergy pressed political candidates for their stances on usury last year. That's when the Boston Globe raised the question with Pandit.
O'Connor told me he'd wanted to believe the word of Pandit: "I thought he recognized that the American consumer through taxpayers had supported his bank, and that there was a responsibility...to also support the public in tough time.
"Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim -- in our scriptures, all of us agree that usury is wrong," O'Connor said. "We liken it to federal highways...When you remove speed limits you have terrible crashes, and you devastate people's lives."
"The banks borrow money at 0% and then lend it out in poor communities at 29% to 35%," O'Connor said. "I am from Jamaica, Queens, which is one of the No. 1 communities for foreclosures in the country. We're disappointed in this response from the Citi CEO."
Al's Emporium, written by Dow Jones Newswires columnist Al Lewis, offers commentary and analysis on a wide range of business subjects through an unconventional perspective. He can be reached at 212-416-2617 or by email at email@example.com, or on his blog at tellittoal.com.