As anticipation builds ahead of the Obama team´s new rescue plan, a column on Slate.com by Daniel Gross might contain a helpful tip to the architects of the next round of bank rescues: Get rid of the CEOs.
Mr. Gross points to the uproar over Merrill Lynch´s former chief, John Thain, approving bonus payments right before the merger with Bank of America closed; Citigroup´s aborted plans to buy a new corporate jet; and that many banks receiving bailout funds continue to lobby Capitol Hill.
Mr. Gross adds:
"As these three episodes show there are also downsides to conducting bailouts outside of bankruptcy and without a formal change of control. When a company files for Chapter 11 (which is getting so crowded, we might need to rename it Chapter 12), the ownership structure changes: Creditors typically supplant the old stockholders. But the series of deals that former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke hammered out for the finance industry has mostly diluted existing stockholders without formally wiping them out. As a result, management has continued to act as if it still reports to the representatives of the shareholders (their handpicked board members) rather than to the people who are providing them with the rescue billions they so desperately need (you and me). And so they continue doing the things that executives do: lobby governments, buy jets, and pay bonuses."
Mr. Gross´ comparison between bankruptcy and bailout is useful: Banks don´t have to be nationalized to have significant management changes imposed upon them. There are other instances in which a company must restructure and revitalize its management.
Changing the guard at the top of giant, teetering financial firms wouldn´t be the same thing as taking over the institutions completely, but it could go a long way toward flushing out some of the well-established Wall Street habits that are giving bankers a bad name right now. Between nationalization, against which observers and industry players have been fervently railing, and the ineffective, few-strings-attached capital infusions of the past four months, a mandatory management turnover seems like a happy medium.