America’s Worst CEO

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Former Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain has become the most visible symbol for all the Wall Street excesses that the financial crisis has exposed; in the words of Zachary Roth of Talking Points Memo, “not just greed, but callousness, obliviousness and general incompetence.” Details of Thain’s mismanagement of Merrill have been surfacing quickly, and culminated in the loss of his job as an executive for Bank of America, which bought Merrill last September. Indeed, Thain amassed an impressive record in his short time at Merrill, including lavish personal spending, absentee leadership and billions in bonuses despite massive losses for the company. Roth recently created a list of Thain's top 10 greatest moments over the last turbulent year. Here are a few of his most shameful moments:

The Great Redecoration
Thain paid $1.2 million last year to refurbish his office suite—well after Merrill's huge losses on mortgage assets became known.
The Unfortunate Chair Incident
During a summer 2008 meeting, Thain, angry about Merrill's huge mortgage-asset-related losses, threw a chair against the wall, shattering a nearby glass panel.
Just Can't Quit Those Mortgage Assets
Even after Thain had been forced to beg Bank of America to save Merrill, his traders, thinking the market had “bottomed out,” kept trading risky mortgage securities; the same assets that had helped bring on the massive losses that made the B of A deal necessary in the first place.
The Bonus Fiasco
In October, Thain suggested that he should receive a $30-$40 million bonus; then compromised at $10 million. After much public criticism, he dropped the request and later denied having asked for a bonus at all.
The In-Retrospect-Ill-Advised Ski Trip
In mid-December, after Merrill’s fourth quarter losses emerged as much larger than expected, instead of informing Bank of America CEO Kenneth Lewis of the losses, Thain took off for his ski house in Vail.
The Other Bonus Fiasco
In anticipation of the merger, Merrill, with Thain still in charge, accelerated its yearly bonus payments, giving out an estimated $3-4 billion in bonuses before January 1, 2009, when Bank of America took control. Some at B of A believe the expedited schedule was designed to avoid giving B of A a chance to cut the payments.
John Thain's Top Ten Greatest Moments (by Zachary Roth, Talking Points Memo)
Thain's Side (interview by Maria Bartiromo, CNBC)
Thain Says He’ll Repay Remodeling Costs (by Peter Edmonston, New York Times)


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