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When Losing Money Is A Crime...CEOs Will Be Paid Even More

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Let’s take a bit of a breather from the news about John Thain and Merrill Lynch. (We’ll come back to that momentarily, no doubt.) In all the excitement, we almost overlooked an important column by the Wall Street Journal’s Holman Jenkins. In today’s Journal, Jenkins urges some sobriety in the face of losses at Wall Street firms, something that’s been sorely absent in recent weeks.
Indeed, at some point—after the executions of Stan O’Neal and Chuck Prince and while the mobs were turning their attention to Bear Stearns’ Jimmy Cayne—the urge to overthrow the heads of so many Wall Street firms began to take on tones that almost recalled the French Revolution. After losses at Bear Stearns were less than expected, Cayne now looks safe but it’s worth taking a step back and wondering if anger at chief executives over losses might have gone too far.
Certainly calls for jailing O’Neal or Prince—as we heard from Bill Lerach, a plaintiff’s laywer who is himself on the way to prison—went too far. Losing money is not a crime, at least not yet. But the more broadly felt outrage at the size of severance packages for O’Neal and Prince were only slightly more measured. As Holman points out,
“Misplaced moralizing over business losses also infects the discussion of exit packages. Notice how these discussions substitute the language of reward and punishment for what are really matters of contractual relations and strategic, before-the-fact incentives.”

To wit, Merrill Lynch CEO Stan O'Neal's severance is not a bonbon from a loving board, but what the board feels legally obligated to pay him, based on commitments made before the results of his tenure were known. Nor was he without proper incentives, then or now. His chief performance pay was Merrill stock, and his holdings are worth millions less than they were before the subprime losses emerged.
That won't satisfy Mr. Lerach, who thinks Mr. O'Neal should be imprisoned. But nobody in his right mind would take the job on such terms given the risks entailed in running a modern business, including the risk of civil or criminal litigation if things go sour. Indeed, what towering pay in the risk-taking professions really may be telling us is how utterly averse to risk-taking ordinary human nature is.

One fact that will surely drive the Lerach’s of the world up the wall is that the recent ousters on Wall Street are likely to result in even higher pay for management. The risks of running a bank or a brokerage are greater now than they have been at any time in the past—risks of prosecution, lawsuits, and ouster—and the top managers will demand to be compensated for those risks. Already the wires are carrying stories telling us that one of the surviving CEOs—Lloyd Blankfein of the House of Goldman—may receive as much at $75 million this year.
Losing Money Is a Crime [Wall Street Journal]